There’s a Chinese saying, 治標不治本 ; simply treating the symptoms to a problem does not solve the root cause. And right now, businesses are stuck addressing food waste symptoms.

Seattle is no stranger to environmentally sustainable policies. The city enacted a plastic bag ban in 2012. And in 2018, Seattle was the first major U.S. city to ban plastic straws and utensils in food service businesses. These policies are steps forward to a cleaner, healthier environment. But how effective are they in practice? And how equitable is the burden to comply?

ECOSS partners with Seattle Public Utilities to conduct outreach with small, minority-owned food service businesses about recycling and composting. Over the course of several visits, ECOSS works with each business in their native language to understand Seattle’s recycling and composting policies, implement operations that meet the city’s regulations and adapt to new initiatives.

Signage in multiple languages guide customers in sorting recyclables, compostables and durables away from the waste bin.

By visiting businesses repeatedly, ECOSS builds relationships with the owners. These relationships in turn build trust as owners become familiar with ECOSS staff. Businesses become more eager to work with ECOSS and change behavior.

Repeat visits also enable business owners to discuss the challenges they face with ECOSS. Large businesses more often have the capacity to anticipate and adapt to changing policies and trends. But small businesses face numerous barriers to advancing recycling and composting capacity. Crucially, food service businesses are constrained by distributors’ supplies. Not all businesses are located near a distributor that supply compostable utensils or reusable straws. The compostable options can be two to three times more expensive than their plastic counterparts even when the distributor does supply. And yes, the city can do little to stop distributors from carrying plastic straws and utensils. Ultimately, small businesses feel like they are simply being punished for their good environmental deeds.

ECOSS promotes waste reduction by providing compostable utensils for multicultural events. Photo Credit: Sam Le.

These barriers create a gap between understanding zero food waste versus implementing and operating the processes necessary to realize zero food waste. Since 2014, ECOSS has helped businesses establish and increase their recycling and composting capacity. Businesses fully understand the importance of zero food waste and how to comply with regulations, but there’s a limit to their recycling and composting capacity. In addition to the above challenges, recycling and composting pickup is not continuous and businesses only have so much space to store their waste. ECOSS has shifted to education around waste reduction, compostable, recyclable or otherwise, rather than simply sorting waste properly.

Education is now more important than ever. ECOSS is a leader in bridging the gaps among government, industry, and small and minority-owned businesses to reduce waste. We as a society must take responsibility for the waste we create, especially as countries such as China no longer wish to be the world’s dump sites. That means first reducing how much we consume, secondly reusing what we can, before finally recycling products. ECOSS is working with businesses and communities to spread this “Reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra.

Without systemic changes in the policies that govern waste creation and management – such as incentivizing compostable utensils throughout the entire supply chain – Seattle’s growth as an environmentally sustainable hub will be stunted. Until local, regional and state policies engender more accessible and equitable waste management solutions, ECOSS is helping relieve symptoms of urban waste management.

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