Sustainable Saint Paul?

Biodegradable Takeout ContainersOnce upon a time, sometime in 1989, the city of Saint Paul drafted a sustainable take-out container ordinance. It wasn’t called that, as the terms “sustainable” and “sustainability” weren’t widely used yet.  It was written to help achieve city, county and state recycling and waste reduction goals through increasing the types of take out containers that were recyclable or reusable. Back then, the ordinance was written to help reduce the amount of waste that goes to the landfill (now, waste that’s not recycled is burned for energy recovery). Minneapolis wrote a similar ordinance around the same time. Saint Paul’s ordinance was supposed to be enacted in 1990 and effective January 1, 1991.

Many cities across the U.S. have addressed the “sustainable take-out container” issue through outright bans on the use of polystyrene (brand name: Styrofoam)  – primarily in coastal states. Others have addressed via ordinances that specifically require “food ware” items to be compostable, recyclable or reusable, according to the city of Saint Paul website.

Why are cities banning polystyrene or requiring sustainable takeout containers? There are lots of reasons, including:

  • Nearly all polystyrene ends up in the trash (or on the street, in trees, etc.). There are very few markets for recycling and making a new product out of this material.
  • Some people are concerned about the potential health risks associated with consuming food that has come into contact with this material. According to the “Plastic Foodservice Packaging Facts”website, the FDA indicates that risks of exposure are extremely low, 10,000 times below the safety limit set by FDA. Greater risks are associated with hot food and hot liquid.
  • City, county, and state recycling goals are higher than either the city or county’s current recycling rates. While the amount of take-out container waste is estimated to be up to 3% of the city’s waste, 3% captured would mean a 3% increase in amount of waste resources recycled or composted. The current county recycling rate is around 54%. There is a state law that Ramsey County must recycle 75% of its waste by 2030. 3% more recycled or composted would help us get to that 2030 goal.

I can’t personally say what exactly happened to the city’s ordinance between 1991 and 2017, but here’s what I know so far:

  • 1989: Minneapolis and Saint Paul drafted sustainable take-out container ordinances (foam remained in Minneapolis’ ordinance)
  • 1996: Minneapolis updated their ordinance to add and remove some materials
  • 2012-2013: City of Saint Paul launched the “All In” increased recycling program
  • 2013: New Minneapolis city council member came on board, was aware of city’s take-out container ordinance, and questioned existing use of polystyrene take-out containers
  • May 2014: Minneapolis ordinance updated and adopted, no polystyrene allowed (implementation delayed)
  • 2014: Saint Paul expanded plastic recycling; switched to single sort recycling for residents
  • April 22, 2015: Minneapolis’ updated ordinance takes in effect. Various exemptions allowed limited materials to be used until 2016, 2017, and 2019, mostly for lids for hot and cold containers and plastic-lined cups
  • 2016: Saint Paul organizes a sustainable take-out container task force through their Department of Safety and Inspections (DSI). They organize community meetings and listening sessions with businesses and other industries with take-out containers, such as grocery stores, gas stations. Research was conducted, education and outreach was provided.
  • July 2016: 24/7 organics drop-off site opens in Como Park
  • 2017: Saint Paul launches new recycling carts to city residents
  • January 1, 2017: St. Louis Park’s sustainable take out ordinance takes into effect.
  • October 4, 2017: Saint Paul city council votes to lay over the ordinance vote for one week
  • October 11, 2017: Saint Paul City Council Members vote 5-2 against the updated ordinance. A vote to lay over the vote for a year passed 6-1. Council members wanted DSI to provide more outreach, more education on BizRecycling grants for increased recycling and organics collection (up to $10,000 is available per business, per location, in Ramsey and Washington counties!)
  • October 24, 2017: Mayor Chris Coleman sent a letter to city council members expressing disappointment that ordinance update didn’t pass. He refused to sign a resolution without council member support. Council members believe that the ordinance can’t get updated without a resolution from the Mayor.
  • July 2, 2018: Mayor Melvin Carter was inaugurated as Mayor of Saint Paul. He supports this initiative in concept.
  • October 2017-September 2018: no major developments by Saint Paul’s mayor, DSI, or city council members.
  • July & August 2018: Waste reduction citizen advocates met and discuss reaching out to council members about October 2018’s sustainable take-out container ordinance vote.
  • September & October 2018: Citizen advocates contacted Rebecca Noecker (Ward 2), Chris Tolbert (Ward 3), and Mitra Nelson (Ward 4). They also meet with Dai Thao (Ward 1), Amy Brendmoen (Ward 5 and council president) and Jane Prince (Ward 7). Support is mixed.
  • October 2018: New organized trash collection begins
  • October 3, 2018: City council members vote to delay the vote until November 7, 2018
  • November 7, 2018: ???

I’m sure there are a lot of key facts I’m missing as I’ve only been connected to the topic for a little over a year. I’ve been taking action by contacting and meeting with city council members, contacting restaurants and similar establishments, learning about grant opportunities, connecting to other citizen advocates, district councils, etc.

What happens next in Saint Paul? We’ll find out after the November 7 Saint Paul city council vote. Stay tuned.

Melissa Wenzel

About Melissa Wenzel

Car-free bicycle advocate, passionate state employee, union leader. MN's "Industrial Stormwater Sherpa." Human being first, government employee second.