After a year’s delay, St. Paul is preparing to implement its “Green To Go” takeout food packaging regulations. City staff is convening a community-industry working group to plan implementation of the sustainable food packaging effort. The group is to review ordinance language and the current reality of composting and recycling programs. A work plan and next steps will be laid out, including a firm start date.

The controversial packaging ordinance affects restaurants, delis and other businesses with carryout food and drink. It was to take effect in January 2021 but was delayed for a year by St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter under his emergency powers tied to the COVID-19 pandemic. Carter has repeatedly delayed the start date, most recently in September.

Another factor in the delay is that a long-awaited residential composting program wasn’t ready. That program, in collaboration with Ramsey County, is to start in late 2022. People currently either must do composting in their yards or haul food waste to a county or neighborhood compost site. A third factor is city resources and the level of staff work needed to enforce the ordinance when it is implemented.

Restaurants and neighborhood business associations contacted by Foodservice News said that the switch has been made to recyclable or compostable containers, or that it is in process. Some places are still using up their existing container supplies.

Those who made the switch said they have been able to find most of the containers they need. Replacing black plastic containers and catering trays with a sturdy and reliable substitute continues to be a challenge.

John Wolf of Dixie’s on Grand/Emmett’s/Saji-Ya said they made the switch several months ago, before the pandemic began. The sustainable containers have a higher cost, which is especially noticed when packaging the sushi from Saji-Ya. That requires multiple containers for one order.

Switching to the sustainable containers was a cost that restaurants had to balance as they dealt with government-mandated shutdowns and a decline in sales during the pandemic. “It hasn’t been easy, but we’ve made it work,” Wolf said.

Carter’s delay, issued in early 2021, has met a mixed reaction from City Council members. While council members agreed that most restaurants and delis have used up their supplies of polystyrene containers and switched to reusable, recyclable and compostable items, they disagreed on the delay. Council President Amy Brendmoen has opposed the delay, as has council member Mitra Jalali.

But other council members—including Chris Tolbert, Rebecca Noecker and Jane Prince—cited the unique challenges faced as a result of the pandemic. Restaurants and delis were forced to have all food offerings as carryout for several months.

“I think for the businesses that have not yet made the conversion, it absolutely is a burden,” said Noecker.

The regulations have been on the drawing boards since 2015-2016, with months of outreach by city staff. Residents, affected business owners, the Minnesota Restaurant Association, neighborhood business associations, packaging manufacturers and recycling and environmental advocacy groups were all involved.

The meetings included information about the county BizRecycling and Minnesota Waste Wise programs, which provide technical assistance and grant funding for businesses transitioning to the new to-go packaging as well as food waste composting.

One version of the ordinance was voted down in late 2017 as a majority of council members cited other regulatory burdens on businesses, and the need for a delay before passing more regulations.

A revised ordinance was adopted in March 2019. It was to start January 1, 2021, to give establishments time to use up containers that cannot be recycled or composted. The ordinance exempts foods that are prepackaged by the manufacturer, producer or distributor. It targets food and drink packaging used to contain food or beverages intended for immediate consumption.

Businesses must have “environmentally acceptable packaging” and have their own systems in place for proper composting or recycling of items.

If there are not any commercial alternatives available, a business could seek to waive the requirement under a set city process.