ID alleys beware: compost bins are moving in and taking over

Owner of Phnom Penh restaurant Sam Ung is a proponent of recycling food waste. Ung says his restaurant’s waste is 90 percent compostable or recyclable. (Photo by Vivian Luu/NWAW)

Owner of Phnom Penh restaurant Sam Ung is a proponent of recycling food waste. Ung says his restaurant’s waste is 90 percent compostable or recyclable. (Photo by Vivian Luu/NWAW)

By Vivian Luu
Northwest Asian Weekly

Owners of 25 restaurants and businesses are kicking the stink of communal dumpsters by enrolling in the City of Seattle Compost Collection service. Food scraps are collected in 60-gallon, 8-yard containers and hauled to Cedar Grove Organics Recycling, LLC for composting.

The movement follows the citywide Styrofoam ban that went into effect in January. It is a precursor to the second stage of the mandate that will start on July 1, 2010, in which Seattle businesses will be required to use compostable products and be enrolled in some composting service.

Restaurants are recycling food waste instead of composting because there are currently no on-site facilities that physically break down food waste and turn it into fertilizer.

Among composting service participants is Phnom Penh, a Cambodian restaurant located near the corner of South King Street and Maynard Avenue South. Restaurant owner Sam Ung said that since his business started the program last month, about 60 percent of Phnom Penh’s waste is compostable, 30 percent is recyclable, and 10 percent is trash.

“There’s very little trash,” he said. “We recycle glass, plastics, and cardboard. All the scraps go into the compost box.”

Ung said he was aiming for environmental stewardship when he enrolled in the composting service.

“I [have] always encouraged my employees to recycle,” he said. “If we can save a few things, if people do things, it helps the environment. You can save something for your next generation to use. It’s good — I like the program.”

Going green and reducing carbon emissions, however, isn’t the top priority for all businesses. Candace Chin of the Chinatown–International District Business Improvement Area says many restaurant owners are unaware and uninterested in saving the environment.

“There is a general mindset that says, ‘If it works, why change it?’ ” Chin said. The environment isn’t even part of the decision-making process.”

Instead, Chin said she appeals to resolving a long-time problem at the International District (ID): illegal dumping. Dumpsters are often propped in alleys. Shared among businesses, many are left unlocked and unattended.

“When someone walks by and sees an open dumpster, it’s known they will dump their garbage [there],” Chin said. “People [would] leave couches and TVs here.”

On the other hand, Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) approach restaurant owners with another incentive: big savings.

According to the SPU website, compost collection in Seattle costs 32 percent less than waste disposal.

All food waste collected in the city is composed at Cedar Grove Organics Recycling, said Stephanie Terrell of Resource Venture, a SPU unit that helps businesses conserve resources through community outreach and education programs.

“We talk about all the benefits [of food waste recycling], but businesses need to be concerned about their bottom line,” Terrell said. “Many restaurants operate on such a thin margin. They can’t start programs that require time and energy. They get on board when they see a little bit of money. That’s the message we appeal to businesses firsthand, the one they respond to most.”

However, composting in the ID has one more foe. English is a second language for many restaurateurs. Some owners cannot speak English, and are unable to receive information about composting.

Chin said this language barrier is keeping businesses in the ID from going green.

In response, Terrell said that SPU is currently developing a Food Service Best Practices sheet.

“We’ve heard it’d be really nice to have a one-stop… composting and recycling resource for restaurants,” she said, adding in an e-mail that the sheet will be translated into 14 different languages, including Vietnamese, Cantonese, Mandarin, Tagalog, Korean, Cambodian, Laotian, and Thai.

A hotline was set up earlier this year to help non-English speakers get information on the Styrofoam ban. The service will be used as the composting mandate takes effect next July.

“When you get into composting, recycling, and the cost-saving benefits, that’s when it helps to have native speakers with you and thoroughly translated materials,” Terrell said. “It’s more helpful to have that one-on-one interaction.”

Also participating in the compost collection service is Fu Lin, located near the corner of South King Street and Fifth Avenue. Other restaurants in the program are transitioning from recycling only cardboard and cooking oil to also recycling cartons, aluminum, tin, and glass.

“Instead of the alleyways being viewed as an eyesore and nuisance … we could clean and reduce the waste,” Chin said. “The alleysways could become another revenue source, like creating a bistro alleyway with jazz or performances [on] certain days of the month. It is the classic Buddhist paradigm ‘poison into medicine’ opportunity.” ♦

Vivian Luu can be reached at

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