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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 was the senior managing editor for video at Cascade Public Media and a founding reporter of the public media reporting partnership EarthFix. She covered environmental issues of the Pacific Northwest for more than six years, earning numerous regional and national journalism awards including eight regional Emmy Awards for reporting, photography and editing, a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Excellence in Innovation and the 2015 international Kavli Science Journalism Gold Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Katie currently works as a video journalist for the investigative journalism nonprofit organization ProPublica in New York City.

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