In January, foam containers will be banned at food-service businesses in Seattle. The University of Washington made the switch to compostable containers in 2007 and saved money.

When the University of Washington switched to compostable spoons, they went soft as soon as they touched a bowl of hot soup.

Eighteen months later, the spoons stand on their own. Through trial and error, the UW has found that containers and utensils made of paper, corn, sugar cane and reed work just as well as plastic for the 28,000 meals served each day around campus.

Spending on disposable ware is down 9 percent, and the university has saved more money by sending food scraps and compostable trash to a private composting facility instead of a landfill. Some students even started a campus garden using the compost.

Although the UW made the change voluntarily, all businesses that serve food in Seattle — whether it’s lattes, fried chicken or teriyaki — will be required to eventually stop using plastic and foam containers. Under a city law passed last month, food-service businesses must stop using foam containers Jan. 1. They can switch to plastic, but only for a while. In July 2010, businesses must convert to recyclable or compostable containers and utensils.

Micheal Meyering, project manager for UW’s Housing and Food Services, said compostable products, made of organic materials that break down in the soil, can work with all types of cuisines.

“You can take it out to the city,” he said, adding that the UW serves everything from Asian stir fry and salads to espresso and pizza. The only container they haven’t found a compostable replacement for is the plastic-coated Asian takeout pail.

The UW used to serve sauced foods, French fries and pasta in plastic containers that cost 18 cents each. Now they are served in clamshell boxes made from sugar cane, reed and straw that keep food hot and cost 4 cents less. Meyering said the UW buys in such volume that it can negotiate lower prices than a small business can. Many small businesses now use less expensive containers for hot food, such as foam clamshell boxes that cost about a dime apiece.

Scot Cissna, general manager in Renton for packaging consolidator Bunzl, said a small restaurant probably would pay closer to 25 to 30 cents for the UW’s hot-food container made of sugar cane.

The UW replaced plastic-coated paper coffee cups with cornstarch-coated cups that cost 3 cents more. The straws are compostable. Ketchup comes out of a pump to eliminate the little plastic packets that were piling up in the trash. By changing napkin dispensers so students can pull out only one at a time, the school reduced use of paper napkins by 25 percent.

“It was very frustrating at the beginning,” said Sam Guyer, a junior who tied an early spoon into a knot after it half-melted. “Now that they’ve gotten past the initial stage, I’ve been very pleased. They’re still not plastic but they’re very usable.”

Elsewhere in Seattle, people who work with food businesses say they are confused by what nonfoam alternatives are available, whether they stand up to heat and liquid, and how much more they will cost.

The International District Housing Alliance, which runs a program to promote greener waste, has been researching compostable containers to show to the businesses it works with in the Chinatown International District.

Joyce Tseng, the alliance’s community environment program manager, requested samples from a vendor months ago and just recently received them.

“I imagine for a small business it’s an even bigger challenge,” she said. “Who has time to sit on the Internet and contact vendors?”

The UW recommends restaurants and delis start planning now so they can use up all their foam containers before Jan. 1.

“I’m kind of concerned about the quick timeline,” Tseng said. “When is the outreach going to happen?”

Seattle Public Utilities has budgeted $150,000 this year and $300,000 in 2009 to educate the public on two issues: the foam ban and a 20-cent fee on paper and plastic bags at grocery, convenience and drugstores that also starts Jan. 1.

Dick Lilly, the utility’s business area manager for waste prevention, said they will reach out to businesses through the association and community-based organizations, such as the housing alliance.

“This thing just passed, so we’re getting organized,” Lilly said. “I expect we will be out there and talking to them by mid-September.”

Sharon Pian Chan: 206-464-2958 or schan@seattletimes.com