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.

24 thoughts on “Sustainable Saint Paul?

  1. Monte Castleman

    As far as people concerned about health risks with plastic, if there’s no actual risk why not let people decide for themselves whether or not they’re going to patronize a business based on that, and thus businesses decide based on customer demand. Maybe more customers actually don’t want their food to get cold the second they walk out the door with paper containers.

    1. Melissa WenzelMelissa Wenzel

      Well, I think there are risks. Also, I haven’t seen where compostable or recyclable products are so inferior to heat-based needs.

      But the article really isn’t about that. It’s about removing a product that has very low recycability factor, and about needing to move toward city, county and state recycling goals, where this will help with that.

      It’s not a “feel good” ordinance. It’s one that will help with reducing our waste and increasing our recycling goals. Better yet, it may spur more restaurants like Augustine’s to offer a discount if you bring your own take-out container. Reuse, of course, is the better way to go.

      Many businesses are already ready for this or have made the switch, specifically local chains that have establishments in Minneapolis.

      I’ll be providing a short list of establishments that already have some/most/all sustainable take-out containers in my November “part 2” article.


      1. Brian

        Most people go to a restaurant, especially take-out, for convenience. It isn’t all that convenient if you have to bring your own container.

        If environment is a concern it is probably better for the environment to do your own cooking. Restaurants tend to have lots of waste beside containers they pack your order into.

        1. Melissa WenzelMelissa Wenzel

          Brian: for most people, of course not. That’s why there’s a financial incentive for people to do so at Augustines (I just found this out 2 weeks ago; I haven’t been there in a couple of months but will, with my take-out container ready to go).

          But that’s not the point. The point is that this ordinance would require businesses to provide recycable or compostable take-out containers. Think of it: with the new city-wide trash program, people could recycle more, compost more (bringing them to county-wide organic drop-off locations) and reduce their waste amounts and reduce their trash bills.

          Sounds good to me.

            1. Melissa WenzelMelissa Wenzel Post author

              Adam: I can’t wait for curbside organics collection to come to Saint Paul. I’ve been told we’re ~2 years out? We had to get through the implementation of the new trash cart system first (just “one thing at a time,” no other reason that I know of). We’re making progress!

              1. jared czaia

                I am very concerned with the environment and actually work in packaging sustainability.

                However, I hesitate to endorse curbside organic waste collection. It would effectively be the poor minorities and immigrants subsidizing the requests of the rich. Studies have shown knowledge of and interest in seeking the best destination for organic waste exists far more among the wealthy.

                If it’s split up by neighborhood, that could make it equitable. But it would also make it a logistics headache – maybe one that can be overcome, I’m not sure. But I don’t feel good about any of East St. Paul’s tax money going toward’s Crocus Hill’s curbside organic waste collection.

                1. Rosa

                  Whether people worry about something doesn’t reflect how much it affects them that well – disposing of plastic waste affects poorer people more because of where we site disposal facilities, and climate change effects fall harder on poorer people generally just like every other negative collective effect.

                  But also a well run composting program should actually save money over time – setup is expensive, and it’s highly dependent on good compliance rates (which is a reason to run a voluntary program) but incinerators and landfills aren’t free either. Diverting heavy wet material away from the HERC lowers overall costs, locally, but composting is often cheaper than space in sanitary landfills also.

                  1. Melissa WenzelMelissa Wenzel Post author

                    I have mentioned it to quite a few restaurants; some change, some don’t. I’m not a fan of Cossetta’s for a few other reasons (I won’t get into it here) but do suggest that they bring this topic up to restaurants they like when they see unsustainable take-out containers like black plastic or polystyrene (name brand: Styrofoam) containers.

                  2. jared czaia

                    Your argument hinges upon the assumption that curbside collection would greatly increase the amount of organic waste being diverted.

                    I concede that’s possible, but until a study offers strong evidence of this the safe conclusion to draw is that it would simply make life easier for those of us who already separate compost and wouldn’t have to transport it to a site anymore.

                    NYC recently stopped their services for this reason – people didn’t bother using the organic waste bins or put garbage/recycling in them. Only 10% of organic waste was being captured.

                    I don’t mean to shame lower income neighborhoods as being uncaring about the environment or uneducated on waste disposal, or consider the environmental concerns of wealthier folks as being “first world problems”, but clearly there are different priorities and attitudes here and offering the same solution will be a waste of fuel, carts, and tax dollars.

                    As I mentioned earlier, rolling this out by neighborhood could potentially be effective. But if the numbers don’t improve and we’re taxing the poor to offer them a service they don’t use, that doesn’t sound good to me.

                    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

                      Sample size of 2: We did not separate organics before we had curbside pickup. Nor did my mother in law.

                      In Minneapolis, it’s opt in, so I don’t see a lot of worry about people getting a service they won’t use.

    2. Tom BasgenTom Basgen

      Never trust The Market to do the right thing. Markets serve Capital which has a completely different set of needs than the well being of Human Beings.

      1. Julie Kosbab

        In addition, regulation can drive behavioral changes through a population that are harder to achieve on individual initiative.

        We can all make changes in response to climate breakdown, but only solid regulatory agreements and rules at a population level can make strong inroads.

  2. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    It’s the little things… Reminds me of the plastic bag ban ban that really annoyed me. Shouldn’t cities be allowed to make their own policies on things like this? The legislature should not take away cities’ rights to create change.

  3. Matt Henseler

    I think about this issue every time I go by Cossetta’s. Take-out or dine-in, everything gets served in the non-recyclable #5 black plastic.

    It’s disappointing to hear that support is mixed; can you elaborate at all? Seems like there might still be time to put some pressure on if the word gets out.

    1. Melissa WenzelMelissa Wenzel Post author

      Hi Matt,

      Yeah, I’m starting to not dine at places that don’t have sustainable take-out containers. A few of us are generating a list and we’re still working on verifying that everyone on that list does have (some) sustainable takeout containers. I’ll be sharing that list in my November article.

      I’ll also share more about that mixed support then too. Actually, I think most council members support it but perhaps not the timing. Last year they were concerned because of the new sick and safe leave policy and this year, because of $15 an hour. While if that passes it wouldn’t be fully implemented for several years, it’s the symbolism of having many requirements pass at the same time that could hurt small businesses.

      A few of us are coming up with a resources list, to help the CMs and all businesses find grants (up to $10,000 per business, per location!!), get free site visits for waste reduction efforts and otherwise save money by implementing sustainability initiatives.

      I wanted to cover all of that in the article I wrote this week but once I started looking up dates and facts, it took a lot longer than I thought. Plus we hear that while there’s support for this initiative, the next steps may be delayed. I don’t know all the details yet, and we’ll all know more after Nov 7. And a few of us are working towards a positive, long-term future impelmentation plan to help businesses, help the council members.

      Check out this Zero Waste Saint Paul facebook page and group:

      You see some day-to-day efforts here, as well as see who some of the community advocates are.

    2. Rosa

      have you talked to them about it? A lot of times restaurants claim they’ve never had complaints from customers (just like many say they have no customers who use bike lanes.) Even if you still go, just telling them it’s a concern and makes you stop in less often than you might can help.

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  5. Pine SalicaPine Salica

    Thanks for your work on this! I am constantly flabbergasted at the use of styrofoam containers in use in st. paul and keep a list of places not to go back to as a result of that. But there’s not a lot of places that are offering me compostable takeout containers in st paul… so my dining out experiences there are becoming limited to “can I eat this in one sitting?”
    I was even handed a burrito in a styrofoam container from a food truck. I was appalled at Tacomobile.
    (No, I won’t bring my own tupperware, not least because I don’t know what size or type I’ll need beforehand.)

    1. Melissa WenzelMelissa Wenzel Post author

      Hi Nicole,

      I agree and feel your angst. Feel free to email me ( if you want our tentative list of restaurants/establishments with some/most/all sustainable take-out containers. Without trying hard, our list is over 70. As far as we know, no one has as comprehensive of a list as we do. And we’re pretty sure we’re missing quite a few establishments.

      For take-out containers, I’ve been using these for several years:

      Rubbermaid Collapsibles Food Storage Container, 2 1/2-cup

      They come in larger sizes but for my restaurant leftovers, they almost always fit in these. I bike everywhere and while these are not spill-proof, they are spill-resistant and can sit upright in my backpack or bike basket.

      1. Rosa

        have you contacted Eureka Recycling for help with this at all? They might be able to give you a list of vendors they’ve worked with for zero waste events – many of those folks only do compostable/recyclable for the events where it’s required, but they at least have some experience with it, and some use compostables routinely.

        This is a really hard one for me even in Minneapolis because the smallest neighborhood places are the most likely to be using styrofoam. But a lot of them at least have a stash of pressed paper containers they’ll give you if you ask.

        1. Melissa WenzelMelissa Wenzel Post author

          Hi Rosa, we have/are working with staff from Eureka Recycling. They’re a great resource!

  6. Melissa WenzelMelissa Wenzel Post author

    Quick update: Community advocates have now met or connected with 6 of the 7 city council members as well as Russ Stark, the city’s new chief resiliency officer. In my next article, I’ll be providing an update for the post Nov 7 vote and actions you all can take if you support this initiative. Thanks!


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