A food truck chef at Rice Park ladles gumbo into Styrofoam cups. In the stalls at Hmong Village, pungent papaya salad is dispensed in Styrofoam containers. Downtown employees return to their offices balancing Styrofoam carryout boxes.
St. Paul dining could see a shake-up — at least in how the food is packaged. Only containers and cups made of recyclable, reusable or compostable material would be allowed under a proposed rule the City Council will vote on next month.
A growing number of cities across the U.S. are regulating food packaging to reduce waste and protect the environment. In Minnesota, St. Paul is following the lead of Minneapolis and St. Louis Park, and city staff hope other communities will join in.
But some business owners are wary of the change, which they said could come at an increased cost.
“One of the things that will hurt is that this cost has got to go somewhere, so it’s going to go to the customer,” said Ron Whyte, who co-owns Big Daddy’s Old Fashioned Barbeque on University Avenue. “It’s going to be tough on businesses.”
Dan McElroy with the Minnesota Restaurant Association has been pushing St. Paul to exempt certain items that he said don’t have good recyclable or compostable alternatives, like coffee cup lids and black plastic food containers.
“The industry is adapting, but there are some packaging types that are more challenging,” McElroy said, and businesses need more time and help from the city as they make changes.
Minneapolis, which added its regulations in 2015, has allowed businesses to continue using non-recyclable coffee lids and plastic-lined paper cups. The city will hold a hearing Monday on whether the exemptions should continue.
St. Paul’s proposed ordinance does not list exemptions. City staff are waiting to hear from the City Council before adding exemptions and will do a market assessment to determine what products don’t have eco-friendly alternatives, said Dan Niziolek with the Department of Safety and Inspections.
The council is scheduled to vote on the ordinance in October and would wait to implement it until a year later.
St. Paul plans to borrow Minneapolis’ tagline, “Green To Go,” Niziolek said, and he would like to see stickers with the phrase in business windows across the metro.
A regional shift to environmentally friendly food containers would be easier for shoppers and businesses, said Emily Barker, a St. Louis Park solid waste program specialist.
She has worked on rolling out the change there and said educating business owners is critical, as is ensuring customers are able to recycle or compost containers and cups.
“A compostable item that ends up in the trash, the environmental benefit — it’s hard to say there is an environmental benefit,” Barker said.
Unlike Minneapolis or St. Louis Park, St. Paul doesn’t have an organics collection program for food scraps and other compostable materials.
The city will likely not have that until 2019, Council President Russ Stark said. But in the meantime, residents and businesses can coordinate with waste haulers to pick up organic material or bring it to various drop-off sites, he said.
While businesses would pay more for new packaging, they would pay less for trash, which is taxed at 70 percent, because they would compost or recycle the cups and containers, said Stark, who sponsored the measure.
Whyte is unsure exactly how much the change in packaging would cost for Big Daddy’s. He said they rely on Styrofoam for everything from plates to cups to carryout containers.
For other St. Paul store owners, like Hai Truong at Ngon Vietnamese Bistro, or Chad Medellin at Caydence Records and Coffee, the change would go unnoticed. Both owners said they already use compostable paper products.
Truong said eco-friendly food containers don’t cost that much more. Medellin estimates the coffee cups he buys cost twice as much, though he does save about $500 a year on trash pickup.
“It’s definitely, definitely more expensive,” Medellin said. “But we’re doing the right thing and you only get one planet.”