Plastic foam, grocery bags could end up on Seattle hit list
Mike Berg likes his giant Jamba Juice mango smoothie, with an added shot of vitamins A, C and E, to stay nice and frosty.
The 49-year-old Seattle resident has seen long-lived plastic foam containers marring the environment, bobbing out to sea where they can break into smaller and smaller bits and get eaten by fish or fowl. That, he doesn't like.
But while drinking from his tall foam cup he wondered what would happen if the containers were banned -- an idea being floated by city leaders.
"What else is going to be a good insulator?" he asked.
|Dan DeLong / P-I|
|A garbage truck unloads at the Seattle Public Utilities South Recycling & Disposal Station in February. The city is studying a "zero waste" strategy.|
An effort to curb the amount of waste being dumped in landfills and gunking up the environment includes the possibility of banning foam containers used for restaurant to-go food. A ban on the ubiquitous plastic grocery bags is also on the table.
"It's a major sustainability issue," Seattle City Councilman Richard Conlin said. "How do we change our philosophical approach that waste is not something that is thrown out, but something that is integrated, the way nature does it?"
Thursday night Conlin is helping host a city hall meeting to get public input on the proposed bans, which are part of a broader "Zero Waste Strategy."
City leaders are looking at ways to bump recycling and composting rates from the current 44 percent up to 72 percent -- a goal that could be hit by 2025 if sweeping changes were embraced, according to a study released in April.
The effort grew out of a proposal to build a third city dump in Georgetown. Residents and businesses in the south Seattle neighborhood raised a stink over the idea. So the City Council commissioned a five-month study by an independent consultant to review Seattle's refuse.
It didn't specifically say whether a new transfer station would be needed if trash volumes shrank, but it did provide strategies and estimated costs for reducing waste -- including scrapping plastic shopping bags and foam containers.
There are different ideas about how those reductions might look, and the City Council likely won't make a decision on the strategy and transfer station until July. There's the possibility of outright bans of the bags and containers. Or shoppers could pay a premium for using plastic -- or even paper -- bags. Foam makers could be required to take back their products for disposal or recycling.
Other governments already have restrictions on these items.
Portland outlawed foam to-go containers nearly 20 years ago. McDonald's voluntarily began phasing out its use of foam burger boxes in 1991.
In April, San Francisco approved a ban on plastic bags at the checkout stands of large groceries and pharmacies. Before the new rules passed, city leaders gave out 1,000 free canvas shopping bags.
IKEA started charging 5 cents for plastic bags at its furniture and housewares stores earlier this year.
In Seattle, citizen activists recently began pushing for reductions in the use of these omnipresent items.
Ellie Rose is leading the effort to ban foamed polystyrene, launching "Foam-Free Seattle." After years of activism aimed at stopping domestic violence, war and international slavery, she decided that if we didn't save the environment, none of the other issues mattered.
So Rose, a licensed massage practitioner, rallied local environmental groups and campaigned to reduce the use of the foam products, which are made from a petroleum byproduct and last many years in landfills or break up in the environment and can be eaten by wildlife.
Ban supporters plan to show up for the meeting Thursday in force and decked out in fanciful foam hats of Rose's creation.
"It is a plastic that is ubiquitous, and because it easily floats around and moves, it's hard to contain," Rose said. "There are many alternatives to it. There's no reason to use it."
It didn't make sense to Dan Lundquist, a professional gardener, when he saw shoppers loading pristine organic produce into countless plastic bags at his local PCC Natural Market.
"It seems like an outdated way of living," he said. So he helped form a small Seattle group called BYOB (Bring Your Own Bag).
PCC is doing its best to promote bag reuse, spokeswoman Diana Crane said. It sells reusable bags for less than $1 and will donate a nickel a bag to charity when people bring their own.
"It would be great if we never had to give out another bag and people just brought what they had at home," she said. "If the bag works, use it."
Lundquist supports a plastic bag ban, but favors charging shoppers for all new bags so they don't just substitute paper for plastic. His goal is to get people to consider how much they're consuming and throwing away.
"It seems like a little simple issue, but it's something that effects each and every one of us," he said. "It can trigger deep thought processes in other things we do in life."
The changes under consideration by the city could cost businesses. Conventional plastic bags cost about a penny, while compostable plastic bags are 5-9 cents, experts said.
Foam containers are also cheap and effective, keeping coffee hot, soda cold and teriyaki chicken from leaking all over the place.
And the prohibitions don't always work as planned.
In Portland, many restaurants turned to clear, plastic clamshells in lieu of foam, "which offer many of the same problems," said Andy Schneider, commercial compost specialist with Portland's Office of Sustainable Development. The plastic containers are also petrol-based and hard to recycle.
Supporters of a Seattle ban said they'd push for provisions requiring that the foam is replaced with more environmentally friendly alternatives such as paper products or biodegradable plastics made of plants.
Jamba Juice doesn't have a strong opposition to a Seattle foam ban, spokesman Tom Suiter said.
"Should any ban go into effect, we'll fully comply," he said.
In Portland and three California cities that have foam prohibitions, Jamba Juice has turned to paper cups for its frozen drinks.
"That's the option we have," Suiter said.
Seattle generated 438,000 tons of trash in 2006. City officials are looking at ways to reduce what's going to landfills. They'll be guided by the Zero Waste Strategy Report and comments from the public. Here are some of the recommended changes. Some could be phased in next year, others by 2020:
- Require disposal of food waste in yard waste containers.
- Require recycling at large event venues and parks.
- Increase the kind of items that are recyclable and collect recycling weekly, garbage biweekly.
- On-demand curbside pick-up of discarded household items to be recycled or taken to the dump.
- Encourage recycling of construction and building materials.
- Add policies and incentives for reducing or eliminating electronic waste, mercury-containing products, paint, carpets, cell phones, batteries, tires, drugs.
- Ban foam restaurant food containers and plastic shopping bags.