City makes history in effort to turn restaurants ‘green’

September 28, 2010

By Warren Kagarise

A plastic fork and spork get picked out of the compost waste pile by Cedar Grove Composting General Manager Nick Harbert. By Greg Farrar

Groundbreaking packaging ordinance takes effect Oct. 1

Inside the neon-illuminated Rollin’ Log Tavern, the full effect of the city-mandated change from foam and plastic to eco-friendly cups, containers and utensils is apparent after a quick glance at the timeworn bar.

Not long ago, skinny straws made from paper and swizzle sticks fashioned from wood replaced the plastic of yore.

Issaquah is the first Eastside city, and among a handful of cities in the state, to require compostable containers at restaurants and other food sellers. The ordinance is modeled on a Seattle law.

The change to compostable cups and containers — plus a citywide ban on expanded polystyrene foam, often called Styrofoam — takes effect Oct. 1.

Many establishments, from dive bars to chain restaurants to school cafeterias, started the changeover to compostable materials not long after the City Council passed the landmark ordinance last November. The city chucked polystyrene because the material does not biodegrade in landfills.

“I think a lot of people want to help the environment these days,” Rollin’ Log Manager Jamie Reynolds said. “It’s the little things like that that you can do. If everybody did a little thing, they could make a big difference.”

The ordinance has a broad reach into the dining rooms, storerooms and kitchens at Issaquah restaurants.

A compostable paper straw finishes off the presentation of a cocktail at the Rollin’ Log Tavern in downtown Issaquah. By Greg Farrar

For diners, the change marks the end of foam takeout containers and cups — cheap and durable options, yes, but not the best choices for the environment. Some restaurants hinted at price increases to offset the added cost.

For restaurateurs, the council decision set off a scramble for affordable containers, cups, straws and utensils made from paper, corn and other plant materials. But some of the alternatives do not hold up to food and drink as well as hardy foam and plastic.

“The technology still isn’t there for a spoon that can sit in a cup of soup for longer than 30 seconds,” Josh McDonald, state and local government affairs coordinator for the Washington Restaurant Association, said last week. “If you keep it in the soup and you pull it out, the thing is melted and bent backwards. We’re not there yet.”

Following a trailblazer

Resource Conservation Office Manager David Fujimoto and the city conservation team reached out to restaurateurs and grocers to help assuage some of the concerns about the ordinance.

The measure has a July 2011 deadline built in for some products, including the buckle-under-pressure compostable spoons. The staggered deadline emulates the Seattle ordinance.

“We wanted to provide some consistency, so if you’re a business that’s operating in the direct Seattle market — for example, a Taco Time — with operations in Seattle and operations in Issaquah, we wanted to try to provide consistency as much as possible, so they don’t have to retool just for Issaquah,” Fujimoto said.

Sarah Barnes, a manager at Pogacha in Issaquah, said the Eastside mini-chain committed to compostable containers, food-scrap composting and grease recycling years ago.

“We were already there, so it doesn’t feel like as much of a financial hit since we’ve already been trying to behave in an environmentally responsible way,” she said.

The restaurant decided against a price increase to offset the higher cost of the eco-friendly measures — despite a difference of $5,000 to $10,000 per year.

Proponents said the cost should decline as manufacturers produce more compostable products to meet the demand in the Seattle area.

Reynolds said the transformation to eco-friendly containers and utensils at the Rollin’ Log had a negligible impact on costs. The bar did not raise prices.

However, cost remains a concern, especially as customers dine out less in a lackluster economy.

“We recognize the longer purpose of being sustainable,” McDonald said. “We do worry about having to take on these costs in an economy that’s very difficult to survive in.”

Dick Lilly, business area manager for waste prevention at Seattle Public Utilities, brushed aside concerns about price hikes.

“The marginal cost of a meal at a takeout or a restaurant where they’ve converted to compostables isn’t very much to a customer, so it’s not something that drives customers away,” he said.

‘Green’ equals dollars

Though the Issaquah ordinance outlines a $150 fine for first-time violators and a $300 penalty for repeat offenders, Fujimoto said the city has no intention to send a code compliance officer into restaurants or stores to hunt down infractions.

Instead, the city plans to educate rule-breakers to bring them into line.

“Most likely, we would follow up with them and we would probably try to reach the business owner or the restaurant manager, and make sure they’re aware that there’s this requirement out there, and then also let them know that there are some resources to help them make that transition,” Fujimoto said.

The collaborative approach is reminiscent of the effort Seattle Public Utilities used to roll out the Emerald City ordinance in stages in January 2009 and July 2010.

The similar setup also made the process easier for business owners and employees.

Tutta Bella Neapolitan Pizzeria has outposts in Issaquah and Seattle. Anthony Ferrara, kitchen manager at the Issaquah location, said the local ordinance had no effect, because the restaurant already used compostable containers in every restaurant.

The fallout from the Seattle ordinance has critics, too, including Dennis Ballen, founder of Redmond-based Blazing Bagels. The chain has a store at Safeco Field.

“Right now, man, it hurts. If you’re trying to be ‘green’ it’s an expensive statement,” he said.

Sean Hartley, operations manager for Tom Douglas Restaurants — a Seattle icon and another early adopter of “green” practices — said the change made sense in the eco-conscious Seattle area.

“When I see a Styrofoam cup of coffee, it seems so out of place now,” Hartley said. “It was a no-brainer to me to stop using that stuff.”

Nick Harbert, general manager at Cedar Grove Composting, holds a compostable takeout food container before the composting cycle starts. By Greg Farrar

The food chain

Flattened takeout containers and grease-stained pizza boxes rumble from restaurants and residences aboard trucks bound for Cedar Grove Composting just outside Issaquah.

Trucks disgorge ton after ton — 195,000 tons last year — of food scraps and compostable containers, cups, utensils and wrappers.

Crews in heavy equipment transfer garbage from steaming piles into a grinder to pulverize the material.

Sorters catch the occasional noncompostable stowaway.

General Manager Nick Harbert recently picked chunks of foam packaging and a plastic paint tray from the pile.

“Was somebody painting the kitchen?” he said. “This has nothing to do with food.”

Compostable materials — aided by heat, moisture and microbes — break down the garbage in about 60 days. The result is rich compost in the same color as dark chocolate.

Cedar Grove has tested more than 1,600 compostable products and OK’d about 700 for use.

“I think the industry would credit our ordinance for causing the creation of the compostable meat tray,” Lilly said of the Seattle law.

Restaurateurs and leaders in Issaquah and Seattle said the presence of Cedar Grove in the region makes the mandates for compostables possible.

“Cedar Grove is looked to nationally as a standard-setter in the composting business,” Lilly said.

The facility — infamous among neighbors for foul odors — functions as a central cog in the decision to require compostable containers in Issaquah.

“Most of the state of Washington just couldn’t do this, because there isn’t the infrastructure,” McDonald said. “You can’t have this kind of recycling and composting pickup and have it go through the proper cycle if you don’t have the infrastructure that will do that.”

Hurdles remain

The catch to compostables: The same process used to turn the containers into mulch starts as soon as hot coffee is poured into the cup.

“If you’ve got a coffee cup with a lid on top, the lid is naturally breaking down as you’re using it,” McDonald said.

In a nod to the hurdle, the City Council decided Sept. 20 to postpone requirements for parts of the ordinance until July 2011. Restaurants can continue to use foil-backed paper, plastic straws and cocktail picks, and foam portion cups until then.

The measure already had exemptions for lids made to handle hot liquid, utensils and trays used to package raw meat.

The extended deadline also takes the Issaquah School District into account. The original deadline — May 2011 — called for the district to enact changes just before the end of the school year.

Though all Issaquah schools use reusable trays in school cafeterias, and many made strides in composting, Resource Conservation Manager John Macartney said the district has no plans to hold schools outside city limits to the Issaquah requirements.

“Realistically, because of the cost, I don’t see the district not using Styrofoam in the other schools for awhile, until the budget is a little more stable,” he said. “It boils down to the dollars. That’s the reality.”

The district has banned polystyrene foam trays, although some eco-unfriendly containers remain in use.

“The district decided that it just wasn’t environmentally appropriate to use that kind of product, because it doesn’t break down and it goes into the landfill and sits there for potentially thousands of years,” Macartney said.

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or Intern Paige Collins contributed to this report. Comment at

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