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St. Paul Considers Carryout Packaging Rules

Carryout food and beverage containers from St. Paul coffee shops, delis, convenience stores and restaurants would have to be recyclable, compostable or reusable if a pending city ordinance is adopted. 

St. Paul City Council members are expected to review the ordinance by May, with a public hearing later that month or in June. If an ordinance is approved, businesses would have one year to use up existing cups and containers and come into compliance, said Dan Niziolek, the deputy director of the city’s Department of Safety and Inspections. 

Many restaurants and foodservice businesses have already made the switch to compostable and recyclable items. Others offers discounts for people who bring their own coffee cup and encourage customers to bring their own containers from home for leftovers.

Silhouette Bakery & Bistro in the Frogtown neighborhood has used compostable packaging and utensils since opening last year. Eric Huynh, who co-owns the global fusion restaurant with his sister Ericka Trinh, said the environmental benefits outweigh the costs. 

“It’s the right thing to do,” he said. “It took us time to find packaging and products that could be composted or recycled but we felt strongly about it.”

Niziolek said when research began 18 months ago on a packaging ordinance, he and other city officials were surprised to learn that a strict set of regulations are already on the books. St. Paul and Minneapolis councils passed comprehensive ordinances restricting food packaging back in 1989. 

The St. Paul effort was led by then-Ward Three Council Member Bob Long. The ordinance adopted at that time prohibited businesses from selling or providing food wrapping and packaging that wasn’t environmentally friendly. The ordinance in its broadest form included plastic tableware, bottles, cups, bowls, plates and food wrapping, as well as plastic bottles, jugs and containers. City officials were barraged with complaints from manufacturers including Dow Chemical and national restaurant chains including McDonald’s.

The St. Paul plastic packaging ban was to take effect in July 1990 but was repeatedly delayed to allow for a statewide law to be considered instead. When the business community, environmental advocates and recycling firms couldn’t agree on what a state law would look like, those efforts stalled at the capitol. Long left office at the end of 1993 and the ordinance faded from view. Since then Minneapolis and St. Louis Park have adopted updated food packaging ordinances.

A new St. Paul ordinance would be less restrictive than the one on the books. “We think you should start small and go from there,” said Niziolek. 

The city’s intent is also to ensure consistency with its residential recycling program. One wrinkle is that St. Paul doesn’t have curbside composting and isn’t likely to start that program until 2018 at the earliest.

Also sought is consistency with Minneapolis and St. Louis Park, and other cities such as Bloomington considering a similar ordinance. Niziolek said one consideration is to expand the current “Green to Go” campaign regionally.

Recent food packaging meetings have drawn several dozen citizens, manufacturers and business association representatives, as well as a handful of business owners. Most debate at meetings has been between the city’s residential recycling contractor, Eureka Recycling and Nancy Hylden of Hylden Advocacy & Law. Hylden represents Dart Container, which provides foam food packaging as well as recyclable and compostable packaging.

As a zero-waste nonprofit organization, Eureka is supporting the proposed ordinance, while Hylden said there are many misconceptions about food containers, including that they cannot be recycled. McLeod County has recycled such materials successfully, she said.

Business leaders have raised concerns regarding container costs and sizes, and business associations including the West 7th Business Association are asking that more be done to look at costs, especially for small businesses.

Ramsey County grants are available to help restaurants switch to materials that can be composted, reused or recycled, said Niziolek. A number of restaurants have already enrolled in the grant programs, which also focus on composting.

The Minnesota Restaurant Association, which is a member of the city’s food packaging working group, doesn’t have an appetite for such restrictions. Association Vice President Dan McElroy said the group’s 2017 legislative agenda includes opposition to bans on the use of polystyrene packaging for foodservice and other packaging restrictions. Not only are costs and product availability a factor, McElroy said restaurants with locations in more than one city struggle under local ordinances that may differ from city to city.

“If there’s a product available that cannot be recycled, reused or composted, St. Paul can make exemptions,” Niziolek said. 

But environmental activists are pushing against exemptions, saying too many would make an ordinance meaningless. 

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