Seattle City Councilmember Bruce Harrell

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Apr 08 2009

A Small Business Solution:
Compostable Container Buying Co-op

Published by at 8:07 pm under Environment,Small Businesses

The Seattle City Council, while intending to help the environment, unintentionally hurt small restaurants and possibly your wallet or pocketbook. I am advocating for a smart fix.

Last year the City Council passed a bill which prohibits food service businesses from serving food in containers made of expanded polystyrene (Styrofoam) in conjunction with the plastic bag fee legislation. The legislation was created because the disposal of Styrofoam creates a burden on the city’s solid waste system and is harmful to the environment. While the environmental impacts are significant, I am also concerned about the economic burden that food establishments have faced by switching to compostable products. Restaurant owners are now stating the shift to compostable products has increased their boxing costs 35-40%, which is significant for a small business. The increased costs to business are likely to be passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices. I am proposing the establishment of a buying co-op where local food service businesses could combine their collective buying power to reduce the cost of compostable products.

For example, the University of Washington recently made the change to compostable products, and given the volume in which they purchase goods, they are actually able to negotiate lower prices than a small business. In the past, the UW served many foods in plastic containers which cost 18 cents each. Presently, the same foods are served in containers that are made from sugar cane, straw and reed which cost 4 cents less than plastic ware. A small food service business could expect to pay 25 to 30 cents for the same containers. This is a significant cost increase. Because the City has imposed this ban through policy initiatives, we should embrace a duty to encourage business policies to assist them. We should assist small businesses to sustain themselves and remain competitive in their industry.

Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) began conducting outreach in mid-September in order to educate small businesses on the transition and to ensure that they have the information needed to make the transition. Since the polystyrene ban took effect on January 1, 2009, food service businesses are permitted to utilize plastic food service ware until July 1, 2010.

I plan to work with the Department of Economic Development, the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, the Washington Conservation Voters and the Washington Restaurant Association in building the network of small businesses in the food service sector. The success of our small businesses and restaurants is vital to our economy. When we enact legislation that helps the survival of our precious planet, it does not mean we ignore helping small businesses survive too.

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