City considers ban on Styrofoam
June 23, 2009
By Warren Kagarise
Stop by XXX Rootbeer Drive-in for a to-go root beer, and the signature drink will be served in a plastic foam cup — for now. Employees at the drive-in and many other Issaquah restaurants could be forced to swap Styrofoam and other polystyrene containers for eco-friendly materials.
Drive-in owner Jose Enciso said his restaurant uses polystyrene products because they cost less than alternatives. As the City Council considers a ban on Styrofoam to-go boxes and other food containers made from eco-unfriendly polystyrene, Enciso and other business leaders said the ban could mean higher prices on the menu.
But Enciso said he was comfortable with the switch for environmental reasons.“Whatever it takes to help out the environment,” he said. “We’re ready.”
A proposed ban would outlaw polystyrene food packaging — a measure that would impact restaurants like XXX, grocers and other food sellers. Critics said the material lingers in landfills long after Styrofoam trays and cups are tossed into the trash. Polystyrene is expensive to recycle, too.
Councilman Joshua Schaer modeled the legislation on polystyrene bans in Seattle, Portland and several California cities.
“There may be a little resistance now, but I’m sure — given the success of this in much, much larger cities than Issaquah — it seems to me that we can move in the right direction,” he said.
Schaer and other Council Sustainability Committee members met June 16 to discuss the proposed ban.
Officials have questions about safe alternatives to polystyrene and how the ban would impact restaurants already grappling with consumers dining out less in the down economy.
“You know, these packages are used to serve takeout or in restaurants, and they typically last for a few minutes in terms of any use,” Schaer said. “The reality is, while we may only see them for a few minutes, the landfill and the environment sees them for tens of thousands of years.”
Even Schaer acknowledged not all compostable and recyclable alternatives are as durable as polystyrene. Schaer, a lawyer, works at a firm in downtown Seattle. He recalled buying lunch at a Pakistani restaurant near his office soon after the Seattle ban went into effect.
“They were using a corn-based container that was extremely hot and the curry was starting to melt through the bottom of it,” Schaer said. “That went on for a few weeks and I think people started complaining to the owner, because he’s at the counter all the time. You know, they made a switch.”
Schaer said the new container type survived the several-block walk to his office.
Though the draft ordinance declared the ban would be effective Jan. 1, officials said a ban — if approved — would go into effect much later. Sustainability Committee members will review the measure again next month.
Josh McDonald, government affairs coordinator for the Washington Restaurant Association, said restaurateurs would need time to prepare. He said they are also reluctant to use compostable and recyclable alternatives, because polystyrene is cheaper. In turn, restaurateurs would pass the cost along to diners.
“Anytime you take steps to increase costs, it has a negative effect on us,” McDonald said. “That said, a lot of our restaurants, a lot of our folks, are voluntarily moving in this direction and doing what they can and doing their part to move toward more sustainable [practices].”
City Resource Conservation Office Manager David Fujimoto said his staff planned for education and outreach efforts if the City Council bans polystyrene packaging. Fujimoto said 131 of the 800 or so businesses in Issaquah serve or sell food — 42 fast food outlets, 61 full-service restaurants and 28 stores.
Holly Chisa, Washington lobbyist for the Northwest Grocery Association, said her organization was working with more than 100 stores impacted by the Seattle ban to find products to meet the criteria outlined in the city’s ordinance.
Seattle officials outlawed polystyrene food containers last year. The ban took effect in January; next year, it will expand to include plastic containers and utensils.
Chisa said her No. 1 concern was the polystyrene trays used to package raw meat. Trays made from cardboard, and sugar and corn derivatives pose challenges. For instance, blood and other liquids seep through cardboard, while sugar and corn products could provide food sources for harmful bacteria.
“For a grocery store, the single most paramount concern we have is food safety,” Chisa said.
Products like prepackaged soups would already be exempt from the proposed ban. Schaer and other committee members did not rule out additional exemptions to the ordinance.
“For instance, if you said, ‘Hey, we own this business in Issaquah and there are simply no compostable or recyclable lids that we can use that are safe for our customers,’ then the city would take a look at that,” Schaer said.
Greater Issaquah Chamber of Commerce CEO Matt Bott talked with Issaquah restaurateurs before the meeting. Bott said reactions to the proposed ban were mixed. He said officials should seek input from business and restaurant owners as they rework the ordinance.
“We would just ask for some time to get the word out, to get input and then come back with something that would hopefully be of value to this community,” Bott said.
Besides food safety, industry lobbyists raised concerns about whether alternative materials could hold up to hot food. Chisa echoed Schaer when she said some compostable and recyclable containers are not as tough as the real deal.
“Soup will break down that container faster than anything I’ve ever seen,” she said.
Reach Reporter Warren Kagarise at 392-6434, ext. 234, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment on this story at www.issaquahpress.com.