Later this week the Seattle City Council is expected to decide whether to implement a phased ban on expanded polystyrene and plastic food ware. Expanded polystyrene, most commonly known by its trade name, Styrofoam, has long been synonymous with take-out meals but has also been widely criticized as being toxic to humans and destructive to the environment.
If adopted, the first phase of the ban, effective in January, would demand that food service businesses in Seattle find alternatives to polystyrene containers for packaging food and drinks.
The second phase of the ban would go into effect in July 2010 and would prohibit the use of all disposable plastic food ware, allowing only those containers and utensils that are able to be recycled, reused, or composted.
So how will Seattleites tote home their favorite Pho?
It turns out that alternatives for most expanded polystyrene containers are widespread and readily available. And according to many proponents of the ban, it's just a matter of getting businesses on board and educating people about the alternatives.
Brad Price of Simply Biodegradable in Moses Lake sells a wide variety of biodegradable and compostable alternatives to polystyrene containers, and says he believes the mainstream has been reluctant to switch over to other products because it knows the capabilities of plastic, and anything else is often considered inferior.
Alternatives to plastic are also relatively new to the marketplace and have yet to stand the test of time.
"People will rush to be number two in line for something new," said Price, "but to get someone willing to be first is tougher."
Price is currently working on marketing a new line of fully compostable muffin trays, as well as pizza and pie plates made from a mixture of grass clippings, potato starch and/or tapioca starch. He plans to pitch the products to local bakeries and restaurants that want to reduce their waste.
Price says the new "green" bakeware is totally non-toxic, can perform at temperatures up to 420 degrees, and is fully compostable in just a few months.
"The technology really is there for these alternatives," said Price. "It's pretty incredible."
Though few would describe sugar or potatoes as high-tech, many plastic alternatives are made up of such common items as corn, sugarcane, and potato starch.
One of the most common and popular alternative choices for food containers is called bagasse and is made from sugarcane pulp, a byproduct of sugar mills. Bagasse is the biomass that is left over after crushing the sugarcane for its juice. Bagasse can also be used to make paper, and is often burned and used as energy to power the sugar mills, making it a truly multi-purpose material.
Another alternative that is increasing in popularity is food ware made from potato starch. One such brand called TaterWare produces single use, biodegradable cutlery that is already available in some of the nation's largest natural food markets. TaterWare makes plates, cups, lids and take-out type containers as well.
So with all these plant-based, renewable resource alternatives to petroleum-based Styrofoam out there, why doesn't everyone use them?
Good question, says Price, but the answer is simple: Even with the huge push for business to go green, the alternatives to foam still cost more. Granted, some biodegradable containers cost only pennies more per piece, but the cost can add up over time, leaving some small businesses to worry about what the ban might do to their bottom line.
Price suggests looking at the bigger picture, however, when it comes to increased container cost. "The cost of everything has gone up 30 percent in the past few years... Gas has impacted the cost to transport everything. This is just one step out of the petroleum industry."
Presumably the same thing will happen as with any new product: As the demand for biodegradable goods goes up and more companies make and distribute them, the cost is likely to go down. The price for non-foam containers has already been sliding dramatically in recent years
In addition to increased cost, grocers are particularly worried about finding a viable, safe alternative to foam meat trays. Many are under the impression that there are no reasonable alternatives to Styrofoam for raw meat storage. But while they may not be as readily available yet here in the U.S., many European supermarkets have already made the switch to meat trays made from a corn-based biopolymer called Foamed PLA.
Jerry Bartlett, vice president of Cedar Grove Compost in Everett, said that his company has been working closely with the Seattle City Council to recommend viable alternatives to foam containers. Bartlett said he thinks his company may have found a compostable alternative to foam meat trays, but isn't quite ready to go public with all the details yet.
If the ban is adopted, Seattle would join nearly 30 other counties and cities in Oregon, Maine, New York and California in prohibiting expanded polystyrene.