Foam Container

Sustainable Saint Paul? Part 2

Last month I wrote an article about the history of the Saint Paul sustainable take-out container ordinance, where it started from and where it was going as of October 2018. A quick recap:

  • 1989: Both Minneapolis and Saint Paul created sustainable take-out container ordinances; Minneapolis started enforcing theirs right away, albeit loosely. Saint Paul’s ordinance was never finalized.
  • 1996 and 2014: Minneapolis’ ordinance was updated in 1996 and 2014 to add and remove specific materials.
  • October 2017, 2018, November 2018: Saint Paul council members heard pros and cons about updating and enacting the ordinance in October 2017, October 2018, and again in November 2018 with no enacting of the ordinance yet.
  • Today: Saint Paul’s ordinance remains draft to this day.

Now for some good news.

Over the summer, a newly formed group, Zero Waste Saint Paul, organized meetings and gathered sustainably-minded people together to work together on positive actions to get this ordinance passed this fall. The organization’s mission is “bridging waste reduction awareness with action, through advocacy, collaboration, and education. Working together, we can A.C.E. Zero Waste.” The co-founders, Kristina Mattson and Erin Pavlica, have brought together several dozen people who care about sustainability in Saint Paul, including council members, 2018 candidates, and many residents have attended the meetings, including myself. This group should not be confused with either “Saint Paul Trash” or “Saint Paul Cartless”, two groups petitioning the city to break the contract with Saint Paul waste haulers regarding the newly-rolled out organized trash collection initiative. While we individuals may agree with some of the points they’ve made about allowing residents to share carts or reduce the number of carts for multi-unit dwellings, we’re choosing to work on sustainability initiatives with positive actions and WITH our city council members, impacted establishments and organizations that support a more sustainable Saint Paul.

Developments with city council members:

We have contacted or met with 6 of the 7 city council members about the sustainable take-out ordinance. We started over the summer and and continued right up to a week before the November 7 vote. Here is our summary of meetings and interactions with each council member:

Ward 1, Dai Thao: Citizen advocates met with Dai’s aide, Vingya Vang mid-October. Vingya started by staying that CM Thao wants to support this ordinance and sustainability in general. Dai is especially concerned about small immigrant businesses and especially businesses at Hmong Market. She said that many of their foods are liquids and didn’t know of alternatives, and he is concerned with affordable alternatives. She acknowledged that a lot of work has been done on this topic and particularly by the lead department, Department of Safety and Inspections.

Ward 2, Rebecca Noecker: Via email, she has expressed both support for this ordinance and concerns to small businesses, as well concerns about the “level playing field” regarding exempted hospitals and nursing homes, and waste generated by big box stores. We’ve reminded her that the city, county, and state all have recycling goals that we’re simply not meeting and will have to take direct efforts to meet them by their goal dates. For example, in my last article, I mentioned that there is a state law that Ramsey County must recycle 75% of its waste by 2030 (we’re currently at 54%). We’ve mentioned that we’re working on a “resources” document that city leaders can give businesses that list out grants, site visits, interns, and tools to help with a variety of sustainability initiatives from the county, region, and statewide level. She has been receptive of this information.

Ward 3, Chris Tolbert: Several of us met with him on October 30th, and we started by thanking him for requesting that this initiative be laid-over for a year instead of simply voted down outright. His intentions were good: if appropriate outreach was conducted over the year (Oct 2017 – Oct 2018), then it was likely that the council members would vote in favor of this updated ordinance. He mentioned that catering companies have expressed concern about this ordinance, a new concern to us.

Ward 4, Mitra Nelson: It’s my understanding that Mitra had been following the developments of this ordinance. Once we contacted her and asked for her support, she agreed this was the right thing to do. She reached out to Jane Prince to learn a bit about the past and find a path forward for a successful ordinance implementation.

Ward 5, Amy Brendmoen: We emailed and met with her first over the summer, knowing she has and still fully supports this updated ordinance. Because $15 an hour minimum wage was also up for vote the same day, she expressed concern about, again, increased impact to small businesses. Many of us support that increased minimum wage (but know that the smallest businesses have the longest amount of time to implement the wage, if adopted [which it did]), so we knew we needed to be sensitive to this development, both for the sake of the council members but also the perceived and actual impact to some of the same businesses potentially impacted by this ordinance. We started to work on that “resource list” document and created a list of restaurants, coffee shops and other establishments that have sustainable take-out containers. She encouraged us to meet with other council members and find out if they have any concerns and what they are.

Ward 7, Jane Prince: I officially met her for the first time a year ago on this exact topic as a new constituent in her Ward (I previously lived in Ward 2 for 10 years). I couldn’t make it to one of her organized monthly gatherings, and she suggested we meet to discuss this topic and a few other community concerns. Because she takes citizen advocacy and actions seriously, especially constituents willing to work on positive change, she earnestly listened to me and my plea to have her support this ordinance. And she DOES support it, in concept. She has been and continues to be concerned to the impact to small businesses, something I’ve taken very seriously, as have others. This year I organized another meeting with Jane and her aide, Stephanie Harr. To their surprise, I didn’t show up alone. 6-7 other sustainability citizen advocates showed up. The meeting was respectful, informational, and helpful in terms of all of us understanding the balance of new initiatives and impact of those initiatives. She allowed me to document on record (September 17, 2:38pm) that if the appropriate outreach is done before a council member vote, she will support this ordinance. Jane asked me to attend a meeting with polystyrene lobbyists to hear their perspective, concerns, and thoughts. I was deeply honored to be asked (and I was asked to come alone), because it meant she trusted me to ask questions, listen, and provide a perspective based on my interest and the things I’ve learned since getting immersed into this topic. I agreed and attended the meeting with her and Stephanie on October 30th. Things I learned: polystyrene doesn’t have many markets (crown molding, faux “wooden” picture frames or any other type of material that looks like wood but is lightweight). Collection is difficult for market re-use and must be reasonably clean. It’s more practical to obtain used polystyrene from general packaging purposes, such as the packaging that comes with electronics, fans, or anything fragile shipped in a box. In fact, after the ordinance was first written in 1989, the polystyrene distributors set up a collection system that eventually ended due to lack of use, even when they created a mobile collection system of the polystyrene material. While the desire to collect any waste stream is a good thing, I’m not sure that this is the best way to capture the polystyrene waste. Also, focusing on materials that have more of a market when recycled, such as plastics and organics, seems to make more sense, especially seeing so many other cities are going this route. To date, Jane seems to be extremely supportive of our outreach and positive action-oriented developments and she too seems willing to work on a successful ordinance implementation.

Why not Ward 6? We currently don’t have any citizen advocates within Ward 6, and were trying to have constituents from each Ward meet or contact their council member directly, alone or with other sustainability citizen advocates. A few of us have emailed all of the council members expressing gratitude and appreciation for their support on this topic.

What’s happened since late October:

  • October 27: Zero Waste Saint Paul citizen advocates have started featuring restaurants, coffee shops, and other establishments who already have sustainable take-out containers or encourage patrons to bring their own take-out container. The first establishment featured was Augustine’s Bar and Bakery, because it’s the first establishment, as far as we know, that offers a discount when you bring your own take-out container! A 2-paragraph story on Facebook was viewed over 4,200 times and management have said that yes, indeed, people have brought in their own containers since seeing the post.

    Take Out

    Ann Marie, co-owner of Augustine’s, proudly filling up my own take-out containers with their goodies.

  • November 7: Before the vote took place, we heard that the vote for the sustainable take-out container was again, delayed. Because of the pressure and attention to the $15 an hour city-wide minimum wage, it was suggested that the vote be delayed to February 2019. As mentioned above, we met with Chris Tolbert and Jane Prince (a second time), and re-contacted Rebecca, Amy and Mitra to see how the support for the delayed vote would go. While we didn’t want to see this initiative to be a version of kick-the-can, pardon the non-recycling pun, we do want to see this initiative successfully implemented when the timing is right. The word is that if, again, appropriate outreach was conducted between now and February 20th, 2019, the council members will support it. We know we’ve heard this before, but because we’ve gotten organized as citizen members acting positively on this initiative, WE citizen advocates can be the one to conduct the outreach, reach out to businesses and community organizations, and develop the support we need. We concluded that we citizens need to act if we want to see this ordinance passed. And we’re not bitter or angry saying that “someone else should do it,” or “the city should have passed this by now.” We simply know that there are MANY of us who care about this topic and we need to work together to make this ordinance successful.
  • November 13: Zero Waste Saint Paul is officially having monthly meetings, the 2nd Tuesday of the month. They’re currently being held at Mississippi Market, alternating between the east 7th street and west 7th street location. The Tuesday, December 11, from 6:30-8:30pm, at the West 7th Street Mississippi Market (1500 7th Street West, St Paul, 55102). Please attend if you’re interested in this and other sustainability topics. It’s very okay to come late, or leave early, and/or bring your kids. 

Next steps:

We’ve built a timeline of actions we are committing ourselves to, between now and February 20th, to get the support we need on this ordinance. 

November 2018

  • Meet with Russ Stark, the city’s Chief Resilience Officer
  • Contact Restaurant Depot
  • Find more businesses with sustainable take-out containers
  • Meet with additional organizations
  • Meet with additional restaurants, other establishments
  • Finalize draft “resources” list, send to all city council members
  • Monthly meetings agendas for December and January
  • Draft “Sign letter of support” for businesses
  • Draft “Sign letter of support” for organizations

December 2018

  • Find more businesses with sustainable take-out containers
  • Contact/meet with Dan Bostrom
  • Create “sustainable to go” supply list, like Minneapolis did.
  • Meet with organizations on outreach list
  • Meet with businesses on outreach list
  • Create 2 success stories per Ward
  • Create list of green caterers
  • December 11th monthly meeting (Miss. Market west) 

January 2019

  • Find more businesses with sustainable take-out containers
  • Meet with Jane Prince & Mitra Nelson
  • Create talking points for those attending Feb 2019 vote
  • Send final “resources” list, send to all city council members
  • Letter to editor Pioneer Press
  • Jan 8 monthly meeting (presumably Miss. Market east)

February 2019

  • Find more businesses with sustainable take-out containers
  • Feb 12th monthly meeting (presumably Miss. Market west)
  • Feb 20 vote: 3:30-5:30pm

We welcome support, ideas, and people willing to take action across any part of the city. Want to be a part of this momentum? Send an email to

Why am I doing this? I have a full plate at work and over-committed in various volunteer leadership roles at the city and county level, so I honestly didn’t intend to take anything else on right now. But I’ve ALWAYS been passionate about waste reduction, recycling, and reuse efforts, felt motivated by other citizen advocates to use my skills and expertise to try to help this initiative. And this issue is being led by talented, knowledgeable and experienced citizen advocates from various backgrounds; community leaders, oncology nurses, state employees, religious leaders. Myself, being a union steward and leader, a state employee, a volunteer coordinator and a program manager has helped me to articulate my thoughts, express my concerns, meet with city and county leaders, and reach out to others who care about this topic. It’s rewarding to see others inspired on this topic and motivated to take action to improve our community and our world.

Final note: not only are we trying to get this ordinance enacted so that waste from take-out containers can get recycled/reused, but with an increase in compostable containers will lead to increase of food waste being composted. Food waste is NOT good in the waste stream either when it’s burned for energy (it’s an inefficient energy source) or in landfills (it produces methane). But food waste can turn into soil in as little as 90 days. Many farmers and consumers refer to it as “black gold.”

I only intended to write 2 articles on this topic, but obviously the saga has continued. I’ll provide a third and hopefully final update after the February 20, 2019 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.