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Seattle Restaurants Switch to Composting and Recycling

It’s not garbage anymore! 

Composting and recycling items that used to be considered waste starts July 1 at Seattle restaurants, coffee shops, food courts, cafeterias and other food service businesses in a major change driven by a new Seattle ordinance.

Customers can now put napkins, paper bags, wooden coffee stir sticks and many types of take-away containers into new in-store compost collection bins. Hot and cold beverage cups and lids will now go into recycling containers instead the trash.

Seattle’s ordinance, which requires all food service businesses to stop throwing away single-use food service ware and packaging, takes effect July 1.

“With our requirement that food service packaging must be compostable or recyclable, Seattle has taken a big step toward a zero waste future,” said City Councilmember Mike O’Brien. “You have to ask yourself why we should make stuff just to throw it away.  With compostable and recyclable food containers, we’re closing the loop.”

“For the past year-and-a-half Seattle restaurant businesses and the City of Seattle have collaborated to make the new food packaging requirements work well for the industry, restaurant patrons and the environment,” said Timothy Croll, solid waste director for Seattle Public Utilities. “We hope that customers in coffee shops and quick-serve restaurants will take a moment at the end of their meals to learn the new system.  After a few months, we expect it will be routine for everyone.”

“By offering their customers recycling and composting choices, Seattle restaurants will help prevent up to 6,000 tons of food service ware and leftover food from being sent to the landfill every year,” said Croll. “That’s the equivalent of a garbage train more than 100 cars long that will just disappear.”

Here’s a summary of Seattle’s July 1 requirements for disposable food service packaging:

  • All single-use, throwaway food service ware and packaging must be either compostable or recyclable.
  • There are exceptions for items pre-packaged off site, such as ketchup packets; for some small items such as plastic cutlery, straws and cocktail straws, small portion cups; and for foil-faced and other insulating laminated papers.
  • The regulations apply to all food service businesses from taco trucks and teriyaki shops to national fast-food chains to hospital cafeterias and caterers.  There are no exceptions.
  • Fast food outlets, coffee shops and other restaurants using compostable or recyclable food service products must provide collection bins where customers can properly discard these items when finished.
  • Food service businesses must ensure that the compostable and recyclable materials discarded on site are collected for appropriate processing.
  • Landlords/ managers of food courts are responsible for placing bins for compostable and recyclable materials in public areas, and for ensuring these materials are collected for appropriate processing.
  • Landlords/building managers must provide compostable and recyclable materials collection as needed by restaurant tenants.
  • Restaurant operators can locate approved compostable products on Cedar Grove Composting’s web page.  
  • Residents can see what products have been approved for discard in Seattle’s residential food and yard waste carts at Seattle Public Utilities’ web page.   
  • The City of Seattle offers free recycling assistance to businesses, including educational posters and decals in customer dining areas, through Resource Venture,  (206) 343.8505, or

Seattle, closely followed by the City of Issaquah next year, is the first market area in North America to require that single-use food service packaging be either compostable or recyclable.  Similar regulations for single-use food service packaging are being tried in San Francisco and are planned in Toronto.

“We’re seeing big changes at nearly all our local and national-chain quick-serve restaurants.  None will be perfect on July 1, but everywhere the required changes are underway,” said Dick Lilly, SPU’s manager for waste prevention.