In Seattle, “Food service businesses shall be prohibited from selling or providing food, for consumption on or off the premises, in or with disposable food service ware. Acceptable alternatives for prohibited disposable food service ware shall be compostable or recyclable” (Seattle Municipal Code 21.36.086).
Margaret and I met with Pat Kaufman from Seattle Public Utilities who talked to us about Seattle’s experience implementing its 2009 food packaging law. We met Pat in the MacDonald’s down the way from Pike’s Place Market. Since we were there a little early, we ordered some french fries to see if it would come in a compostable container.
When he arrived, the first thing Pat told us was that our bright red french fries carton was destined for the landfill. The red carton is poly-coated paperboard which is not compostable and because it usually gets covered in oil, ketchup, and mashed up french fries, most recyclers haven’t got a use for it either. If no one wants it, it’s garbage.
Pat told us that the Seattle Public Utilities is still working on outreach and education for the ordinance, trying to work with organizations like MacDonald’s and other food service businesses to reach a place where even the bright red french fries cartons aren’t going to end up as garbage.
Part of the law is that restaurants provide three clearly marked bins: one for compost, one for recyclables, and one for garbage. The MacDonald’s we were at had their three bins, although Pat was a little sad that they didn’t have picture posters up showing what should go in each bin. We watched several customers dump the remnants from their trays in various bins and the confusion was clear: paper cups went in the garbage, plastic straws went into the recyclable bin, garbage in the compost bins.
Pat told us that no one had really devised a good method for indicating to people how to sort their refuse. The three bins mandated by Seattle’s packaging ordinance don’t fully mediate the confusion that arises from soda cup lids and ambiguous brown Chinese take-out containers. There is a huge diversity of food packaging items and it’s never as simple as food in one bin, plastic and paper in another. As an example, Pat explained that plastic soda lids, which are not compostable or recyclable, end up in the recycle bins all the time because people like to pack their cups with the refuse from their meal and throw it all away at once.
Pat told us about the efforts SPU is making to further educate people as to what can go in which bin, but ultimately, it seems that either packaging is going to have to become more uniform or another sorting method is going to have to be developed.
The first phase of the packaging ordinance banned the use of styrofoam in food service and Pat explained that this part of the ordinance had been relatively successful because it was simple. Perhaps it helps that there is a $250 fine that the City can impose on vendors for non-compliance, and when you factor in the court and other fees, it works out to be much more like a $500 fine. Pat told us he had to be sworn in as a police officer because it is also part of his job to write these tickets.
When we were leaving MacDonald’s, I asked Pat to show me how to throw out my garbage. Faced with the three bins, I wasn’t really sure: we had three plastic ketchup packets that had been torn open and were sticky with all the ketchup you can’t really squeeze out; there was a sheet of paper that had been laid on the tray and on which we squirted our ketchup to dip the fries in; and there was the red paper carton that Pat had told me was going to end up as garbage.
Pat said the paper could go in the compost bin, but everything else was garbage. Pat has great hopes that eventually Seattle can move towards having all their food packaging be compostable so that consumers can simply throw everything in one bin.
Pat’s organization has designed posters with pictures of what goes where and promulgated them, but even these don’t make the issue that much more clear. With the diversity of disposable items out there and the diversity of systems (Seattle takes food packaging, Vancouver doesn’t), it seems almost hopeless that the average person in a hurry is going to make the right choice. Makes me think the solution here is to stop being in such a goddammned hurry.