Polystyrene ban will begin next October
November 24, 2009
By Warren Kagarise
Issaquah will become the first Eastside city to ban polystyrene food containers, when Styrofoam takeout boxes and plastic foam cups are outlawed next October. Businesses will be required to switch to compostable or recyclable — and pricier — containers and utensils by May 2011.
City Council members adopted the ban last week despite objections from business leaders, who said the legislation would hurt businesses in a tough economy.
Proponents said the measure will cut landfill waste, and steer businesses away from eco-unfriendly polystyrene toward compostable and recyclable alternatives. Critics contend the ban will force restaurateurs to abandon cheap, plastic foam for more expensive materials — and then pass the costs along to diners.
Councilman Joshua Schaer proposed a bill in June modeled on polystyrene bans in Seattle, Portland and San Francisco.
“Let me say to the business community: We will work with you to make this succeed,” Schaer said before the Nov. 16 decision.
“This city has long been plagued by the notion that those who support the environment and those who support economic vitality are mutually exclusive groups, but this legislation is the antidote to that preconceived notion,” he added. “If the economy should continue to falter, we will revisit the deadlines.”
City Council members discussed the bill for about an hour, and then voted 6-1 to approve the groundbreaking legislation.
The new law will be introduced in phases. A voluntary adoption period will begin Jan. 1, and the ban will become mandatory Oct. 1. Officials added exemptions to extend the deadline until May 2011 in certain cases.
Businesses without adequate storage space for recycling or composting containers will be exempt from the ban until the May deadline, if the owner requests a waiver from the city. In a nod to the recession, the bill also includes a hardship exemption to extend the deadline until May 2011 for struggling businesses.
Moreover, utensils and certain packages — like polystyrene meat trays used by grocers — will be exempt from the ban until May 2011. And public schools will not be required to adhere to the ban until the May deadline.
The ban exempts prepackaged food — prepackaged soups, for instance — altogether.
Issaquah Chamber of Commerce CEO Matt Bott credited Schaer for the deliberative way the bill was drafted. Schaer discussed the legislation with business leaders and owners in the months since the bill was proposed. But Bott said the ban would arrive at a bad time for restaurants, and asked for the council to postpone a vote on the measure until the economy improved.
“We believe that this bill, while its intent is good — and I think at some point we may be in support of it down the road — at this point, we think it’s very ill-timed,” he said before the council vote.
Bott said chamber members were asked about food container materials, and the results were mixed. While some businesses already used compostable or recyclable containers, others preferred polystyrene. Through the survey, Bott said he learned why businesses were concerned about the ban: cost.
“Virtually every business we talked to said if the prices were the same or close to the same, they would switch immediately — no code, no ordinance, no penalties needed,” he said in a follow-up interview.
Bott told the council how the chamber wanted to be a partner in the effort to improve sustainable practices, a priority for city officials.
Despite the endorsement from the City Council, municipal officials remain unsure about how to pay for education and outreach to business owners, but fees added to trash bills were put forward as a suggestion during the council discussion.
The city could also provide on-site employee assistance and technical help to businesses, but officials must first formulate a plan to pay for outreach efforts. The legislation recommends $56,450 to help city officials reach out to business owners and implement the ban.
City Resource Conservation Office Manager David Fujimoto said payment options would be discussed in the next few weeks as the City Council finalizes the 2010 budget. The budget is scheduled for a Dec. 21 vote.
Municipal staffers and the Council Sustainability Committee will determine how the education effort will proceed. The push could include mailers sent to restaurants and other businesses with information about the ban, and a Web site with information about the ordinance and requirements.
City Code Compliance Officer Michele Forkner said the initial focus would be education for business owners.
But the legislation outlines penalties for violators. A first-time violator would be fined $150; each subsequent violation carries a $300 fine. Penalties, however, “would be the absolute last, last straw,” Forkner said.
“I can’t imagine anyone really refusing to come into compliance after May 2011,” she added.
The monthslong debate about the legislation attracted attention from local, state and national industry groups.
Larry McIntyre, a representative from the American Chemistry Council — the lobbying group for plastics manufacturers — said the legislation “falls short of recognizing environmental benefits of the material, including the fact that it can be recycled.”
McIntyre pointed to efforts to recycle polystyrene food containers, including a Tumwater drop-off recycling facility where plastic foam is accepted. After the material is compacted and shipped to a manufacturer, the company turns discarded takeout boxes and cups into molding and other plastic products, such as picture frames.
“Banning foam would just lead to a significant, negative environmental impact, as alternative materials — such as coated, bleached paperboard — and compostables generate significantly more greenhouse gas emissions, use more energy and generate more solids,” McIntyre said.
Councilwoman Eileen Barber, who cast the lone vote against the bill, urged her colleagues to consider a polystyrene recycling initiative. Barber attempted to send the legislation back to the Council Sustainability Committee for more discussion, but other council members balked at the suggestion.
“I actually agree with the intent of this, and the strong dedication of Councilmember Schaer,” she said. “His dedication in his voice this evening definitely let us know that it’s an important issue for Issaquah and the sustainability of Issaquah. But we want to make sure that we are leaving this earth in the best condition, so that our children can have a great Issaquah as they grow up.”
Barber said the ban was ill timed for restaurateurs struggling amid the economic downturn. Other council members acknowledged flaws with the legislation, but supported the bill as a way to promote sustainability.
“There is no doubt that these are tough economic times, and I could give you a couple of examples of what small, ethnic restaurants in Issaquah have had to do to just keep the door open,” Councilman Fred Butler said. “But I believe that this agenda bill strikes the right balance between a reasonable approach to implementing the ban on foodservice Styrofoam, and it’s the right thing to do.”
Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.