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Sorting Out a 'Fast Food' Waste Problem

November 19, 2014

Taco Time Northwest, a Mexican-style fast food restaurant chain in Western Washington, found a simple solution to complicating garbage sorting --- they switched to all-compostable packaging.

SEATTLE -- It’s a quandary faced by many fast food restaurant customers – You’re standing with a tray of assorted cups and wrappings and uneaten food in front of multiple bins and wondering. “What goes where?”

“There's no question there's confusion in the food court,” says Tim Croll, the solid waste director for Seattle Public Utilities. “It's a tricky business, unnecessarily tricky.”

Mexican-style restaurant Taco Time Northwest is one of the first fast food restaurants to make the switch to all compostable packaging. Credit: Katie Campbell

All it takes is a few people to make the wrong choice, and an entire bag of compost is contaminated with plastic recyclables. Or conversely, an entire bag of recyclables is contaminated with food.

In hopes of diverting recyclables and food scraps from the garbage, the city of Seattle enacted rules in 2010 requiring restaurants to package food in either recyclable or compostable material and provide customers with three bins -- garbage, recycling and compost.

But Croll says the thinking is changing because of the realization that having food in recyclable containers is causing problems.

Compostable straws cost five times as much as regular plastic straws, says Taco Time Northwest Sustainability Manager Wes Benson. Credit: Katie Campbell

Taco Time Northwest, a Mexican-style fast food restaurant chain in Western Washington, found that nine out of every 10 bags of composting and recyclables were too contaminated and had to be thrown in the trash.

They have since found a simple solution to complicated garbage sorting --- they switched to all-compostable packaging. Some items are more expensive, says Wes Benson, sustainability manager for Taco Time Northwest. For example, compostable straws are five times more expensive than plastic straws.

But overall, switching to all-compostable wasn’t nearly as expensive as they feared.

“It just simplified everything,” Benson says. “No confusion. No standing there trying to decipher a sign.”

And now the City of Seattle is considering rules that would require all restaurants to follow suit.

“Our hope is that most of the stuff that holds food will be compostable,” Croll says.




Made possible in part by

Katie Campbell

Katie Campbell is the EarthFix managing editor for video and a seven-time Emmy® Award-winning producer/photographer at KCTS 9. She covers environmental issues of the Pacific Northwest. Katie has earned national awards for her role in the documentaries Undamming the ElwhaCOAL and Glacier Caves, and is the 2015 winner of the prestigious Kavli Science Journalism Gold Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science for her story Is Alaska Safe for Sea Stars?

Katie grew up on a flower farm in southern Minnesota. After completing her undergraduate degree in journalism at St. Catherine’s University, she worked as an enterprise reporter at daily newspapers in Minnesota and Florida. She holds a master’s degree in narrative journalism from the University of Oregon. Prior to joining KCTS 9 and EarthFix, Katie was an instructor at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication.


More stories by Katie Campbell

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