City council members have for years talked up the importance of switching to compostable to-go packaging, even as they struggled with the right timing for a citywide “Green To-Go” mandate.
“Restaurants are putting a lot of packaging out there that isn’t compostable, isn’t recyclable, and it’s filling up our landfills,” said council member Mitra Nelson, a key architect of the latest proposal.
The concern, however, has been that small cafes, shops and restaurants are already being asked to take on a number of potential budget-busters.
In recent years, small businesses in St. Paul have absorbed the brunt of some of the council’s most sweeping initiatives, from a paid sick leave mandate to bans on menthol and flavored tobacco at convenience stores.
The council recently approved a $15 minimum wage, which will roll out gradually over the coming years depending upon business size.
With those mandates in mind, the council repeatedly postponed rollout of a ban on non-compostable takeout containers. Despite a year of staff outreach and planning, the council voted in October 2017 to shelve the initiative and revisit the topic in a year, and then agreed last fall to another delay.
A new proposal, hammered out by Nelson and council member Jane Prince, calls for nearly two years of outreach and implementation, giving small businesses time to explore buying to-go food packaging in bulk or working together on group purchasing to bring down prices.
The slower rollout also allows time for prices to come down. The East Side Area Business Association is exploring possibly coordinating bulk purchasing on behalf of some of its members.
Through their BizRecycling initiative — BizRecycling.com — Ramsey and Washington counties have made public grants of up to $10,000 available to help businesses achieve their recycling goals, said St. Paul Department of Safety and Inspections Director Ricardo Cervantes.
“We are currently advising businesses,” Cervantes said. “Ramsey County currently has grants, so we are connecting them to those resources now. We’re currently doing that and will continue to do that.”
Hospitality Minnesota and the Minnesota Restaurant Association continue to oppose the proposal.
“We have concerns that the city of St. Paul has not addressed the significant cost increases that will impact small businesses through such a ban,” said Liz Rammer, president and CEO of the two organizations.
Nelson said that given growing awareness, small businesses are in a better position now to make the switch to compostable to-go containers than they were two years ago.
“My staff has gone out to Hmong Marketplace, and a lot of the businesses have already made the transition,” Nelson said. “A lot of the restaurants are already there. I feel optimistic for it. We’re working to make sure people have what they need to transition.”
EXEMPT HOT CUPS AND LIDS?
Minneapolis rolled out a Green To-Go mandate in 2015 but created a series of exceptions.
Two key exceptions — exemptions for polyethylene-lined paper hot and cold cups and liquid containers, as well as their rigid polystyrene lids marked No. 6 — are scheduled to expire April 22. The city of Minneapolis held a public hearing last month on whether to stick to that date, and comments were due by Jan. 31.
Other to-go packaging marked No. 6, which is sometimes presented as recyclable by distributors, is banned by Minneapolis as to-go packaging.
It remains unclear how those hot and cold cups and their lids would be regulated in St. Paul. The WestRock recycling company, which handles most of the residential paper recycling for the city of St. Paul through a contract with Eureka Recycling, has stated it can pulp paper cups lined with polyethylene.
Still, the process produces some leftover plastic.
“They’re just one company,” said Matt Privratsky, legislative aide to Nelson, while acknowledging that WestRock is a major player in the recycling chain. “Usually, the industry standard is whether three separate customers can recycle the product.”
The ordinance makes no such exceptions, but it clarifies that a company may seek a decision from the city as to whether their packaging is “sustainable.”
“There aren’t any specific products carved out in the ordinance language,” Privratsky said, “but DSI (the Department of Safety and Inspections) would make a determination based on working with vendors whether the product can be recycled, or if there’s no adequate alternative on the market.”
In St. Paul, city enforcement would begin Jan. 1, 2021, though a draft of the proposal calls for implementation to begin earlier if Ramsey County follows through on plans to roll out an expanded organics collection program before then.
The St. Paul ordinance amendment would allow some exceptions or flexibility for products that do not have ready replacements in the marketplace. Nursing homes and hospitals would be exempt entirely. The draft proposal makes no specific mention of plastic forks and knives.
The ordinance recognizes that companies have sometimes disputed whether their packaging should be labeled non-compostable or non-sustainable if it can be recycled under particular conditions.
The American Forest and Paper Association, for instance, asked the council in October 2017 to add more paper-based hot food and beverage cups to the list of accepted products.
In 2017, a packaging company attempting to make a similar argument became roped into a City Hall scandal when a television station revealed that a council member had asked the company’s lobbyist for a donation to his mayoral campaign.The perceived “quid pro quo” request resulted in a criminal investigation against council member Dai Thao but no criminal charges.
The St. Paul City Council is likely to discuss the Green To-Go proposal on Feb. 20, with a final vote tentatively scheduled for Feb. 27. Technically, the proposal does not require a fresh public hearing, as one was already held 18 months ago.
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