The products that restaurants in St. Louis Park can use continues to change amid shifts in the industry.
City ordinance requires restaurants and food trucks to use packaging that is recycling and compostable. However, the list of exemptions will increase in 2020.
This year, the city exempted paper food wraps and liners, plastic-lined rectangular containers that fold on top that a city list referred to as “Asian takeout pails,” and some cups and lids, specifically those made of rigid polystyrene No. 6 that are two ounces or smaller.
For 2020, the city will add molded fiber products like clamshells, containers and bowls as well as paper plates to the list of exemptions. City staff members recommended keeping Asian takeout pails on the list of exemptions. However, the council voted 6-1 to approve a motion that included the new exemptions while removing the pails from the list. That exemption will no longer apply beginning in July 2020.
Solid Waste Specialist Emily Barker said staff members are not excited to add exemptions to the list.
“We don’t really have a lot of other choices,” she said.
This year, the Biodegradable Products Institute, or BPI, which certifies compostable products, decided it would no longer certify products that include a specific class of fluorinated chemicals known as PFAS that are designed to prevent moisture and grease from leaking out of containers.
“Basically, the industry is shifting and saying we don’t want these in compostable products because we don’t want them in our finished compost,” said Barker, who later noted that composting facilities have asserted that the chemicals impact water quality on their sites. “Basically all of these products are losing their certification Jan. 1.”
Companies that make compostable products have had a very short window of time in which to respond, Barker said.
“In fact, there aren’t any right now that are market-ready,” she said. “We determined as a staff that we just really don’t have a choice other than to grant an exemption on these. Our hope is that it’s a very short-lived exemption.”
Because paper plates that have been certified as compostable have PFAS in them, Barker said the city would need to exempt paper plates from the ordinance. Foam plates still will not be allowed.
Manufacturers are working on product reformulations that should be available sometime next year, Barker said.
The good news is the change BPI made does not affect compostable cups at coffee shops, Barker added.
“All of these are still compostable,” she said.
Asian takeout pails
An advocacy group called Zero Waste West Metro Minnesota made a request to remove the exemption for Asian takeout pails.
The group made the request during a review process last April and with a petition provided to Mayor Jake Spano in June. The petition had been signed by representatives of 24 restaurants, three of which were outside of St. Louis Park.
Of approximately 115 restaurants in St. Louis Park, city staff members found seven restaurants that use the pails. The city has exempted them in the past because the city had found only two options available that would meet the compostable requirement, both of which had limited availability and required high-quantity purchases. Staff members learned this year that one of the options had lost its third-party verification for compostability.
“That fundamental reason for maintaining the exemption hasn’t gone away, and so we feel like it is appropriate,” Barker said. “They’re something that’s been an industry standard in Chinese restaurants and other Asian restaurants for many decades.”
However, Councilmember Rachel Harris said she has noticed that some Asian restaurants she has visited in Hopkins and St. Louis Park do not use the traditional rectangular take-out containers.
“I do understand that these are, you know, synonymous with the experience of dining at the Asian restaurants,” Harris said. “However, I don’t think that they’re integral to takeout.”
Some restaurants are using black plastic containers with clear lids for takeout instead.
Harris said, “I noticed my experience with the food doesn’t depend upon what type of containers it’s in.”
Councilmember Thom Miller agreed, indicating that the containers are more about branding than they are a necessity for transporting food.
“This food container’s kind of iconic, but maybe it’s got a bigger placement in our minds than actually exists out in the market,” Miller said.
However, Councilmember Margaret Rog, who cast the only vote against Harris’s motion, asked if it would be fair to add a requirement affecting Asian restaurants, most of which are small, family-owned businesses, while adding exemptions for containers used by large chains. Rog added that many cities already do not accept the black plastic containers Harris referenced for recycling.
“Given the scenario right now, that to me is an example of misaligned government policy that just isn’t thinking through the consequences,” Rog said.
Barker said St. Louis Park does accept the black plastic containers for its recycling but acknowledged that some communities do not.
“That’s more of an issue right now with recycling because of the restrictions internationally on recycling right now,” Barker said.
However, she said, “They are recyclable, whether people are recycling or not.”
Rog said, “I do not have confidence that these items are going where they’re supposed to go – hardly ever.”
She recommended better visuals at restaurants to help people determine where to place items.
Spano, who agreed with the suggestion to improve visuals, said he wants the city to conduct a more rigorous education campaign about disposing of items appropriately.
Councilmember Tim Brausen urged business leaders and residents to step up.
He said, “This is a disposable society in so many ways, shapes and forms, and until we say no as a society – that no, we’re not going to buy stuff and throw away tons of packaging – we’re going to continue to create problems for ourselves.”