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To go packaging ordinance passes; takes effect January 2021

Posted on 08 April 2019 by Calvin

A debate that began in 1989 ended Mar. 6 when the St. Paul City Council approved a controversial sustainable carryout packaging ordinance. The measure, which takes effect in January 2021, requires restaurants, delis, and convenience stores to package carryout foods and beverages in recyclable or compostable containers. The delay is meant to allow businesses to use up existing inventory and transition into new, environmentally-friendly packaging.

Hamline Midway resident Erin Pryor Pavlica and Kristina Mattson, cofounders of Zero Waste St. Paul, urged the council to adopt the ordinance, pointing out that 12 out of 17 district councils have signed on in support of the ordinance. That includes Union Park District Council, Como Community Council, and Hamline Midway Coalition.

Pavlica said the Zero Waste group has pounded the pavement and worked tirelessly to get the measure passed. She cited the toxicity of materials such as black plastic and Styrofoam, and questioned why people would want to eat off of “trash.” Such materials have been cited as leaching toxic chemicals into food.

But the 5-2 City Council vote isn’t the end of the story. What is recyclable is tied to the city’s contract with Eureka Recycling. It is possible to change that contract if markets for recyclable materials change. Black plastic and Styrofoam aren’t collected in the current recycling program because there is no recycling market for those products. But those are also products favored by some restaurants.

The change won support from City Council members Amy Brendmoen, Mitra Jalali Nelson, Jane Prince, Dai Thao, and Chris Tolbert. Members Rebecca Noecker and Kassim Busuri voted against.

Council supporters cited protection of the environment and the need to promote more recycling and composting. They noted Ramsey County programs that assist businesses with recycling and compositing and urged opponents to get involved in those efforts. More than 100 St. Paul restaurants have already made the switch, many with the help of the county program.

Prince, who worked on the ordinance with Nelson, said the intent is to give businesses as much time as possible to make the change. Another goal is to have curbside residential organics collection by then.

Looming climate change was also cited.

Busuri raised the issue of equity and called the ordinance “simply unfair.” He pushed for the additional hearing Mar. 6. While he supports environmental sustainability, Busuri said the ordinance unjustly targets small businesses, many of which are family and immigrant-owned, while hospitals, grocers and large corporations that manufacture prepackaged food get a pass. Noecker weighed in on the side of regulating companies that make and sell plastics, instead of asking small businesses to take on the environmental issues.

Environmental and community groups, the faith-based group Isaiah, Eureka Recycling, and citizens rallied in support, citing the ordinance’s environmental benefits. Eureka and other environmental groups asked for more specific ordinance amendments at a later date, because of removal of product labeling standards from the ordinance. A push will be made later to make product certification standards clear because products sometimes aren’t properly labeled.

Groups including Hospitality Minnesota, Minnesota Restaurant Association, Minnesota Retailers Association, and Van Paper opposed the change.

They contend that the ordinance will cost businesses and consumers more. “Comparable alternative products are on the market, but they are double the cost,” said Liz Rammer of Hospitality Minnesota and Minnesota Restaurant Association. She and others pushed the city to find markets for black plastic and foam packaging, arguing that it can be recycled.

Scott Van of St. Paul’s Van Paper said that the ordinance takes just 2 to 3 percent of materials out of the waste stream. “This is not the big issue it’s been made out to be.” He said the voluntary shift by business should continue, noting that Styrofoam containers cost about 12 cents each, while compostable containers cost double that. Bonding materials in some compostable containers are under scrutiny for health reasons.

Restaurant owners spoke on both sides of the issue, with some saying they cannot find packaging materials that meet the ordinance and meet their needs. Other restaurant owners spoke for the change, saying it hasn’t hurt their businesses and is good for the environment. They said such an ordinance would level the playing field and that they agree with the opponents on expanding the ordinance to include more types of businesses.

They also disputed that some materials could, or should, be recycled.