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St. Paul City Council on Carry-Out Packaging

Carryout food and drink containers from St. Paul restaurants, delis, coffee shops and convenience stores could look very different one year from now. The St. Paul City Council is poised to consider regulations requiring carryout packaging to be sustainable. If all goes as planned, the restrictions would take effect October 1, 2018, giving businesses a little less than a year to use up the non-compliant items they have on hand.

The St. Paul ordinance doesn’t include plastic bag regulations, which some council members have sought for years.

City Council President Russ Stark said the goal is to have a public hearing on the ordinance later this fall, with adoption by year’s end. The ordinance is similar to ones adopted by Minneapolis and St. Louis Park.

There has been more than a year of community discussions in St. Paul about what an ordinance would look like, involving residents, affected business owners, the Minnesota Restaurant Association, neighborhood business associations, packaging manufacturers and recycling and environmental advocacy groups. The meetings have included information about the county BizRecycling program, which provides technical assistance and grant funding for businesses transitioning to the new to-go packaging.

A check with city council members revealed most haven’t heard much from business owners, although that could change as a public hearing date nears. “The discussions have gone on for some time,” said Stark, which may be a factor.

The months of discussions reflect a desire for consistency in regulations from city to city, so that businesses with multiple locations don’t have to buy different packaging for each city. There is support for business fairs and shared purchases of items. But the meetings have also been an education process for many, including some environmental activists. At one meeting, ordinance advocates were surprised to learn that due to their coating, the ubiquitous white Chinese food cartons aren’t recyclable.

The draft ordinance targets food and drink packaging intended for immediate consumption, calling for “environmentally acceptable packaging only when the food establishment provides consumers with an opportunity to recycle and/or appropriately manage compostable plastics and utilizes a qualified recycling and/or organics management system.” Such a system would need to show how recyclable and compostable materials are separated from trash and how they are processed. Most businesses already have separate trash and recycling containers. Compostable materials would be handled through an “organics management systems” and would be delivered as food to people, food to animals, organics composting or "anaerobic digestion facility."

The majority of businesses affected by the ordinance already separate recyclable materials for separate collection. 

The proposed ordinance would exempt foods that are prepackaged by the manufacturer, producer or distributor. Examples of reusable containers under the proposed ordinance would be soft drink and milk bottles, and growler jugs from breweries.

Appropriate packaging would be cups, containers and even flatware that can be composted. St. Paul city leaders are interested in curbside composting, but such a program is at least a year or two away. A few neighborhoods have compost sites, as does Ramsey County. 

The program currently doesn’t include the standard black plastic items many businesses use, because they're not recyclable. 

David Cossetta, owner of the Cossetta Alimentari restaurant market complex and Eventi catering company in the Seven Corners neighborhood, has been making his case concerning black plastic to city officials for several weeks. 

“We use black plastic for many items and a change would be costly,” he said.

But city officials point out that if there are no commercially available alternatives, a business could waive the requirement. The business owner would have to make the case for packaging availability, economic consequences and competitive effect. A list of exceptions would be reviewed annually by city staff, to see if condition still warrants an exception.

As of mid-September, the to-go packaging ordinance hadn’t been introduced. Once that happens it will go through a series of three readings, with a public hearing at the third reading. Adoption could happen the following week. Adoption is 30 days after publication in a legal newspaper. 

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