Magazine News Room — 03 August 2015
A garbage train one mile long

By David Faro, Contributing Editor

What would it take for you to totally overhaul the way you process your restaurant’s waste streams? Not theoretically in your head, but on a Friday night, when everyone is moving full speed? How about during a manic lunch rush? What would it take to get your employees to stop and observe what they are throwing away? How hard would it be to ensure that your staff makes a conscious effort to separate recyclables? Up until recently, that was not the case in most restaurants, and imagining a change in operations was a hard sell for many restaurateurs.

Not too far back, the attitude in most hospitality establishments was that trash is trash, and that all waste can be thrown away into a single dumpster – no problem. All the store’s garbage then moves on to a landfill of some sort, somewhere. Despite serious efforts to encourage communities to recycle, single stream waste removal has been the model for many years for most hospitality establishments. Out of sight, out of mind. The trend is changing across the nation. As a result, restaurants must comply with and plan for tougher regulations on what comes out of the back end of their kitchens.

Waste separation has always been the right thing to do, and recycling has been a public effort in most cities for a number of decades. But up until the last few years, in most cities, it was a restaurant’s prerogative to decide if it wanted to pick through its garbage, or just throw it all down the same hole. Not anymore in Seattle.

On January 1, Seattle joined San Francisco, Portland and New York by instituting a composting mandate for businesses and citizens alike. In 2007, the Seattle City Council passed ground breaking legislation authorizing the Zero Waste Strategy to improve recycling and waste reduction rates. The goal is to recycle 70 percent of the city’s waste by 2025. Seattle’s self-imposed goal for 2015 is to recycle 60 percent of the city’s garbage. Adding a composting requirement is the latest ordinance in Seattle’s arsenal of regulations. The city hopes controlled composting helps meet these goals. So now, whether area restaurants want to or not, a complete recycling program is a must have in all Seattle hospitality venues, including compost.

Citizens and businesses have until July before they start to get fined for having food waste in their trash. In the meantime, a red tag on your garbage can means that your trash has been identified as over the limit. Any establishment—business, single family home, apartment, you name it—with more than 10 percent food or compostable paper in its garbage before July will be shamed publicly—in the form of a bright red tag on its garbage bin. The goal of placing a tag is to warn residents about impending fines, hopefully, creating an even stronger composting culture in Seattle.

So what does this mean for restaurants? You would think that this would cause big problems, and that the anticipation of separating waste streams might precipitate a significant amount of vitriol. According to Pat Kaufman, the recycling and waste prevention specialist for Seattle Public Utilities, the opposite has generally held true.

“Most of the calls I get are from businesses and citizens who say, ‘I am already a great recycler, but how can I do better?’ ” said Kaufman.

“Seattle is a national leader in recycling,” said Tim Croll, solid waste director of Seattle Public Utilities. “Most of our city’s businesses and residents are already composting. This requirement is a progression of our collective efforts that help our city become even greener.”

With 74 percent of Seattle supporting the compost law, it wasn’t that hard to sell to citizens. The City Council voted unanimously for the law. Nevertheless, critics of the mandate think the money could be better spent elsewhere. The price tag for the new ordinance is about $400,000.

Todd Myers, environment director for the conservative Washington Policy Center, thinks the money could be put to better use.

“There are a lot of ways to spend this money to actually do good for the planet,” said Myers. “… Seattle is very good at doing things that feel good, but very bad at doing things that [actually] do good for the planet.”

Croll thinks the ordinance ultimately will save the city money. Most of the increased budget will be spent in the first years of the program. Funding will go towards marketing, outreach, and education, but as Croll indicated in a Q&A with the Seattle Times, “In the long run, composting is cheaper to manage than landfilling.”

Kaufman agrees. When asked why mandatory composting is a good thing for the city to do, his immediate answer is to talk about a garbage train that leaves the city every night on its way down to a landfill.

“It’s generally about a mile long,” Kaufman observed. “That’s a lot of garbage, and garbage is the highest cost part of our [waste removal] system. Each time we are able to divert material from the garbage to recycling or composting we are able to keep our rates more stabilized and also reduce waste in general, which is what we want to do.”

Seattle plans to divert 38,000 tons of compost from landfills in 2015. This is almost a 40 percent drop from the current 100,000 tons the city now sends. The city thinks this trend is entirely possible to maintain.

Kaufman believes the recycling program was initially a goal of space [management] and an effort to maintain the life of landfills. These days though, the city looks at the issue through the lens of resource conservation, according to Kaufman.

“It’s about reducing the amount of raw materials that are needed to create all the products that we use and enjoy,” Kaufman said. “It’s turning those [waste] materials into raw materials and getting them back into the system. It is part of what our [Seattle Public Utilities] charge is.”

So what are real the numbers? Will the Seattle compost mandate actually change anything? More importantly, does anything need to change? Seattle is already one of the greenest cities in the country. Is the compost law really a necessity in a city that already outperforms most other comparable municipalities?

That may be the image that Seattle has of itself, but if one looks at the trends over the last few years, they clearly show the city losing ground. In the fourth quarter of 2014 commercial garbage tonnages were up 9.8 percent over the same period in the previous year. The cumulative total for the whole year? Up 5.8 percent. The previous two years also saw increases.

Efficient waste collection for a city well over half a million people requires a complex system. Citizens understand that. However the increases in total tonnage over the last few years has not made the garbage train any shorter. So, Seattle Public Utilities looked to mitigate these issues through compost legislation. Fortunately, Seattle’s citizenry has been listening to the city’s plea for people to compost, and most were already on board.

In 2014’s fourth quarter, cumulative organic compost self-haul increased by 40 percent. Commercial businesses increased their composting by 8.7 percent in the same year. These are the trends the city wants to see continue. Seattle wants to support these trends as the city makes its way to their goal of 70 percent by 2025.

As a result, Seattle has set up a number of resources that restaurants can use to make sure they have a good plan in place to comply with the new laws. Visiting www.seattle.gov/util is a good start.

Kaufman observed that a huge part of his job is education, and that helping people design new systems that aid recycling is what he is employed to do. Seattle also has a website (http://www.growseattle.com/restaurant) called Restaurant Success. It helps restaurateurs navigate the regulations that govern recycling operations along with a host of other helpful information. For more dialed in information, contact Seattle’s full-time restaurant advocate, Jennifer Tam, who can be reached at 206.684.3436. ■

Watch the garbage train as it leaves Seattle

Go to http://wra.cc/wra0415b

Listen to the full interview on composting with Pat Kaufman, recycling & waste prevention specialist for Seattle Public Utilities.

Go to http://wra.cc/wra0415c

(Source: Washington Restaurant Magazine, April 2015)

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