Zero Waste

Sustainable Saint Paul? The Third and Final Part

Presumably you’ve read my first and second article regarding the potential ordinance amendment for “Sustainable To-Go Packaging” for restaurants, coffee shops, grocery stores and other establishments. If you haven’t please stop reading this article and go read the first 2.

Welcome back! The vote in favor or against the Sustainable To-Go Ordinance update was supposed to happen on February 20, 2019, 3:30pm. Ward 6 interim city council member, Kassim Basuri, requested a delay for the vote by 2 weeks and also requested a hearing. That motion passed; the hearing and the vote would start at 5:30pm, March 6. While we were all eager to have this topic voted on and allow us sustainability advocates to be able to move on to other initiatives, we knew that we would couldn’t waste this final opportunity before the vote to work with businesses, organizations, and city council members to support the ordinance.

Let’s back up a sec. What’s happened since November 2018?

A LOT. It’s times like these that the phrase, “it takes a village” becomes SO real. Here’s our list of actions sustainability advocates took between late November 2018 and March 6, 2019. We:

  • Created our Zero Waste Saint Paul website
  • Created a Sustainable To-Go Small Business Tool-Kit
  • Visited Hmong Village, twice! (their food is SOOOO good)
  • Created a list of establishments who have some sustainable (recyclable or compostable) to-go containers. The list is over 100 establishments! (we sure wish the news media had credited us with this list; no one else in the world has created such a list)
  • Created and sent out our first news release
  • Created a “letter of support” online action campaign; nearly 300 individuals signed and sent virtual letters to all 7 city council members
  • Met with 3 additional city council members, ensuring that we met with all 7 council members
  • Held 2 virtual networking meetings to provide updates to anyone interested in this initiative
  • Spoke with several sustainable to-go suppliers who support sustainable to-go containers
  • Researched and documented sustainable to-go prices (note: our prices are far lower than the ones mentioned in the recent media)
  • Contacted nearly all of the city’s community councils; obtained signed resolutions of support from 12 out of the 17 community councils
  • Connected with several religious and environmental organizations seeking additional support for this topic
  • Conducted on-air interviews for a local radio station, and several regional news media outlets
  • Worked with city council members to extend the implementation start date to January 2021 (initially 12 or 18 months from the vote date, extended to ~22 months)
  • Provided clear, concise and positive responses to city council members’ questions they received from local businesses
  • Confirmed and documented what the city’s Department of Safety and Inspections (DSI) would be doing once the ordinance passed

By March 6, we advocates were exhausted but determined. We heard that unsustainable to-go container lobbyists were contacting city council members, as were a few of the big businesses in Saint Paul like Mancini’s Char House and Cossetta’s Italian Market and Pizzeria. We knew that Dave Cossetta himself had been contacting city council members and the media, bringing household grocery trash and misinformation with him to city hall. That only fueled our grassroots community organizing efforts even further. We knew the pockets of unsustainable container lobbyists and big businesses were deep. We were operating on a budget of $0. But we had one thing our opposition didn’t have: positive, passionate, driven community advocates speaking in favor of this ordinance in a way that we believed would actually help save businesses money in the long run. We did not give in to scare tactics, and cheerfully moved along when the media got facts wrong or failed to credit us with information they correctly sited.  We pledged a positive, shame-free campaign from start to finish, After all, those are some of the core values of Zero Waste Saint Paul. It wasn’t always easy. “Compliment in public, criticize in private.” We did a lot of both.

Momma's Kitchen

Momma’s Kitchen owner Wintana Melekin speaks in favor of the to-go ordinance update. Photo credit: Nancy Jane Bitenc

What happened on March 6? Here’s the very high-level summary:

  • The city council meeting started on March 6, 2019, 5:30pm. We were 2nd on the agenda of 2 agenda items for the hearing portion of the meeting.
  • Dan Niziolek, the Deputy Director of DSI, provided an eloquent, succinct and positive outline of past efforts, future developments.
  • Those in opposition spoke about cost impact, requesting voluntary efforts (because not enforcing the ordinance for 30 years wasn’t enough, right?) and that grocery stores’ packaging is exempt but their packaging is not (out of scope of this ordinance but we understand their concerns. We share them!). 7-8 people spoke, with a few people taking up the majority of the time. Flyers with misinformation about exemptions were passed out to city council members and staff.
  • Those in support got up to speak. Zero Waste Saint Paul co-founders, Erin Pavlica and Kristina Mattson, got up to speak on behalf of Zero Waste Saint Paul first, as requested. Owner Wintana Melekin from Momma’s Kitchen, and Moussa Doulaeh, executive chef of Afro Deli spoke too. Moussa said, “yes, I’m a business owner but before everything I am a father and I support this ordinance.”
  • We had 10-12 more supporters speak in favor of a sustainable to-go ordinance update.
  • You can watch the entire hearing, discussion and vote here. This topic starts a little after the 53-minute mark.

Yeah, and…..?

IT PASSED!!!!  We had 5 city council members support it:

  1. Amy Brendmoen (W5)
  2. Mitra Jalali Nelson (W4)
  3. Jane Prince (W7)
  4. Dai Thao (W1)
  5. Chris Tolbert W3)

2 city council members vote against it: Rebecca Noecker (W2) and Kassim Busuri (W6). We had previously attempted, several times, to address the concerns of both council members. We went above and beyond addressing the “small business impact” concerns by creating our business to-go toolkit. We acknowledged that the city is required by the state to meet a a recycling rate of 75% by 2030 (we’re at 54% now) and needs help with the city’s leadership. We WELCOME opportunities, ordinances, and/or additional state laws that require more recycling from more industries. Rebecca, whenever you’re ready to start working on that, contact us. You know that we’re willing to work with you for to help meet the city’s required sustainability goals and to make sure we have a healthier city for your children.

If you’re curious how we feel about this vote, check out this Wedge Live’s video. Yes, co-founder of Zero Waste Saint Paul Kristina Mattson is dancing!

Sustainability advocates across the city and beyond spent several hundred volunteer hours to work with businesses, organizations, community councils, city council members and individuals to get this updated ordinance adopted. Many, many, many deep thanks to you all.

Margaret Mead said it well: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Zero Waste

Council members joined community advocates for a group photo of the Sustainable To-Go ordinance amendment. Photo credit: Mitra Nelson

Mitra poses for a celebratory photo with Zero Waste Saint Paul co-founders, Erin Pavlica, Kristina Mattson, and Melissa Wenzel. Photo credit: Mitra Nelson

Mitra Nelson’s words were just as eloquent and very timely: “The UN has made clear we have about 3 city council terms to take local action on climate change before we face irreversible consequences. Improving our waste streams and rewarding businesses who are leading the way on sustainability is one thing, of many, that we can do at the city level.” Thank you, Mitra. Your positive actions will leave a lasting legacy for much more than 3 city council terms!


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.