VOLUME 28 NO. 12 | MARCH 14 - MARCH 20, 2009

Food industry struggles with foam ban

Last updated 3-12-09 at 1:47 p.m.
All Restaurants in Seattle now have to adhere to new food packaging regulations. Now take-out food must be in “compostable” containers — bye-bye, styrofoam.
Photo by Yuki Nakajima

By Yuki Nakajima
Northwest Asian Weekly

Nearly two months have passed since all restaurants in Seattle were banned from using Styrofoam products, but customers and restaurants find that they need more time to adjust to the change.

On Jan. 1, the City of Seattle banned the use of expanded polystyrene (EPS) food service containers in restaurants. Clamshell-shaped containers, bowls, plates, and beverage cups are typical products made from EPS. By July 1, 2010, all restaurants must adapt to using recyclable plastic or compostable food service products, including lids and utensils.

Dick Lilly, business area manager of Seattle Public Utilities Solid Waste Division, said EPS doesn’t decompose like other plastics. “EPS, from packaging and from food service containers, ends up in the ocean, much of it in a large area north of Hawaii where currents bring all kinds of floating junk,” Lilly said. “As EPS physically degrades into smaller and smaller pieces, it is actually eaten by plankton and thus enters the food chain. Producing and discarding less EPS is an important environmental goal.”

Compostable products reduce negative environmental impact, but they do cost more than EPS containers. Lilly said that compostable materials are more expensive because they are a new and rapidly developing technology. Demand for them in the U.S. is still low and is concentrated mostly on the West Coast. Because of these factors, manufacturing hasn’t yet “optimized economies of scale,” he said.

Though Lilly has seen an increase in the number of products and a drop in prices in the past year, the cost of recyclable products are still high enough to affect food industries. Hitoshi Nishitani, a manager at Aoki restaurant, said he bought compostable containers even though the restaurant still has EPS containers. Instead of throwing them away, his employees have been using them.

“I know new containers are more expensive than the old ones, but I don’t closely look at how much we pay for them,” Nishitani said. “It’s [now] a rule to buy compostable containers. We need to follow it.”

Some restaurants don’t use many containers. Aoki uses about two per day. I Love Sushi restaurant has 10 different containers and uses about 15 containers per day. However, the deli store at Uwajimaya uses more containers than any other restaurants.

Michi Terada, a manager of the deli department at Uwajimaya, said that the store has been paying twice as much for the new containers. The store commonly uses the three-compartment containers and goes through approximately 600 per day. Because of the high consumption, the store buys 1200 to 1800 containers two times each week.

“Even though the containers cost more than before, we didn’t change prices of our products because we didn’t want to lose customers,” Terada said. “I agree with the idea of using compostable containers, but it becomes hard to do business.”

Terada said she often receives complaints from customers about the containers. One complaint is that the compostable containers are not durable enough for customers to keep food for a long period of time. Additionally, there is no coating on the containers, and customers struggle to eat rice out of them. Terada said educating customers on the reason for the new regulation is also important to reduce future food waste. (end)

Yuki Nakajima can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.


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