St. Louis Park council votes unanimously in support of zero-waste packaging ordinance

The St. Louis Park City Council rejected arguments from industry representatives opposed to an ordinance aimed at banning food packaging the city deems to be unable to be recycled, composted or reused.

The ordinance does not specifically call out polystyrene, the material used in Styrofoam and many plastic products used in the food business. However, it will require that materials the city deems acceptable have existing, robust recycling markets. No polystyrene recycling occurs in Minnesota currently.

The proposal, which the council voted for unanimously Dec. 7, prompted AnnMarie Treglia of the Dart Container Corp. to assert, “There are markets for polystyrene, but if people keep denying us access to markets then it’s hard to get that going to what you’re defining as robust. … I would encourage the city, rather than taking away the options and choices of citizens, to actually encourage more recycling.”

Councilmember Steve Hallfin countered, “When is there going to be a polystyrene recycling plant in the state of Minnesota that we can use?”

Treglia responded, “Right now, no one’s allowing us to recycle it here.”

When pressed repeatedly by Hallfin and other council members to back up her statement, Treglia eventually backed down from her assertion.

Shifting her argument after she said she may have used “incorrect terminology,” Treglia argued instead that bans on polystyrene limited the ability to build a market for recycling polystyrene.

Recycling in general has existed in Minnesota since about the 1960s, Councilmember Anne Mavity said.

“I think the market has had an opportunity to respond and create those opportunities, and they have not,” Mavity said.

She added that she has seen “no indication whatsoever” that polystyrene recycling is imminent in Minnesota.

“I don’t think anyone has stopped any of that innovation that you’re suggesting could have occurred,” Mavity said.

“But if you say it’s going to be prohibited for sale, wouldn’t that be de facto stopping the recycling?” Treglia responded.

Mavity replied, “After about 50 years of it not getting recycled, I think it’s time for a new strategy.”

Councilmember Sue Sanger returned to the debate before joining the rest of the council in voting for the city’s zero-waste packaging ordinance.

“While this might be a theoretical possibility in some other community, it really doesn’t help us here,” Sanger said of the industry’s argument that polystyrene could be recycled. “To me, that is somewhat of a disingenuous argument and certainly an impractical argument.”

The council has directed staff to seek to include polystyrene when entering into recycling contracts, Sanger added.

“We never can get any of the haulers to bid on it,” she said. “The industry has had decades of knowing this is an environmental issue and has had decades to try to help set up some kind of recycling for these products. Where have you been? OK? So that argument just doesn’t cut it with me.”

John Easter, director of Midwest State Affairs of the American Chemical Council, also argued during the public hearing that all plastics used for food service should be classified as recyclable. He pointed to a facility in Iowa Falls, Iowa, that recycles such materials into benches. He also pointed to a New York court ruling that voided a New York City commissioner’s policy that classified polystyrene as non-recyclable and therefore prohibited in the city.

“The opinion of the court was that the commissioner was not justified given the abundant evidence showing a viable growing market for not just clean polystyrene foam but also post-consumer material, and this has just happened within the last few months,” Easter said.

However, Hallfin later cited the expense in shipping the material to another state for recycling. After Treglia asked him whether he understood the issue from a business perspective, Hallfin said, “Well, of course I do, but the fact that still remains from my side of the table is it’s very difficult for us to look at polystyrene as something that’s recyclable when it costs more money to send it down to Iowa than it does to throw it in the garbage.”

Cost concerns

Other industry representatives tried a different tack, pointing to the cost and attributes of alternative products. Dan McElroy of the Minnesota Restaurant Association and Minnesota Lodging Association said some replacement lids are softer and not as secure on coffee cups. He said he hoped city leaders would consider the challenge of being “too much of a pathfinder in recyclable lids.”

McElroy said, “They are expensive, and we worry about their durability.”

Franchises would face increased costs to abide by the law because they would not receive the benefit of participating in a national contract for standard cups, he added.

Still, McElroy said, “We are anxious to be helpful.”

He said he worked closely with Minneapolis officials on similar ordinance in the larger city, including the creation of exceptions, ordinance implementation and education.

“We’d be happy to do that here,” McElroy said.

Deb McMillan, director of government affairs for the TwinWest Chamber of Commerce, also raised the cost issue in her remarks. She noted one compostable beverage lid cost 392 percent more than a comparable polystyrene lid.

“It’s reasonable to assume that these increased costs to comply ultimately get passed on to consumers, putting St. Louis Park businesses at a competitive disadvantage,” McMillan said. “There are 853 cities in Minnesota. Just one, Minneapolis, has this same ordinance. So consumers have many choices, and competitiveness matters.”

She advised council members to reconsider the ordinance until the market for alternative products has matured and costs have improved.

David Kluesner of Wisconsin-based International Paper said his company’s compostable cups cost 30 percent more than plastic-lined cups the company sells. Some cities, like Seattle, San Francisco and New York, have begun to accept standard cups in their recycling stream, he added.

While he raised the cost issue, Kluesner was alone among industry representatives who spoke at the public hearing in not objecting to the St. Louis Park ordinance.

“We make the cups either way,” he said.

Resident comments

Resident Conrad Segal, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor this year, did oppose the ordinance, calling it government overreach and increased bureaucracy.

“When you do something like this, I see a very large bureaucracy and a lot of unclear mandates that have to be figured out and take up a lot of time,” Segal said.

The council should be more concerned about the quality of its water – a concern that many residents have raised recently – and about ensuring security in the city during a turbulent time in world affairs, Segal said.

“I grew up going to public school here, being taught that we’re the land of the free and the home of the brave,” Segal said. “This is the kind of thing that I feel represents the loss of our freedoms.”

He added, “I think it would be better for you to let the people of the city decide how they want to get their food packed and how the restaurants should do it, and I think they’ll make good choices.”

On the other side of the issue, St. Louis Park resident Emily Barker argued that the city should not create many exceptions to the zero-waste packaging ordinance.

“If you’re going to do this, you’ve really got to do it,” she said. “I feel that if we piecemeal this with a bunch of exceptions that it’s really not a useful policy.”

She praised the idea of an ordinance that is broader than a ban on polystyrene.

“If we just pick on polystyrene, we’re really not talking about zero waste,” Barker said.

One of the greatest parts of the ordinance, according to Barker, is a provision that calls for the city to review what products are acceptable on an annual basis.

“So if this year polystyrene isn’t acceptable and next year the industry has figured it out, fantastic,” she said.

Barker agreed with industry representatives that compostable products are significantly more expensive, but she said prices have already begun to decrease as demand increases.

“It does come down, and that’s the way things become part of the mainstream,” Barker said.

Terry Gips, chair of the St. Louis Park Environment and Sustainability Commission and president of the Alliance for Sustainability, took a less optimistic view. While he said he spoke as a citizen and not as the commission chair, he said his fellow commissioners unanimously agreed on most of his views at a commission meeting.

The commission has not proposed or supported a ban on polystyrene, Gips said.

“There’s a general feeling that there are far higher and more impactful waste reduction and sustainability strategies,” Gips said.

If the council decided to proceed, Gips said the city should focus on positive incentives rather than fines for noncompliance. He suggested the city should also try to make the issue a county-wide or metro-wide measure to mitigate impacts on St. Louis Park businesses.

He expressed concern about a patchwork of varying regulations creating confusion for businesses operating in multiple cities and said he would like to hear more from Minneapolis officials and restaurant operators about the impact of that city’s ordinance. He warned that the ordinance could create push-back, jeopardizing support for other St. Louis Park environmental efforts.

“It may be that our policies while seeming to make us feel better will actually have a negative impact from a science-based sustainability perspective,” Gips said. “There are so many bigger challenges in need of our attention that we should not be putting this kind of emphasis on something that has such miniscule an impact. These efforts have already taken huge amounts of council, staff and commission time, energy and resources. We question whether it is wise to invest even more.”

Council support for ordinance

Councilmember Gregg Lindberg said Gips’ comments did make him think a bit differently about the issue. He said he hoped the council would have a dialog with the commission.

Nonetheless, Lindberg said he supported the goal of the ordinance to create a zero-waste community.

“At the end of the day, I feel we’ve come to a strong place here in terms of our focus in this ordinance,” Lindberg said.

Councilmember Tim Brausen said he did believe the council had an “either/or” choice to approve the ordinance or to take another action.

“I believe this is a necessary step to continue to address this single-use, throw-away-because-it’s-convenient mentality that seems to be presented in our society currently,” Brausen said. “I want to assure the members of our community that we will continue to work on the much bigger issues, too.”

Sanger said the she did have some sympathy for businesses who may have to pay more as a result of the ordinance. However, she said businesses are currently “off-loading their costs” when they use products that the ordinance would prohibit.

“They may be saving a little money, but the environment is paying the price and frankly the taxpayers are paying the price,” Sanger said. “The taxpayers are funding the incinerators, the landfills and so on.”

While she would prefer a statewide approach, Sanger said sometimes issues must percolate upward from local communities before the state or county will take action. If other communities approve ordinances that vary, they will serve as experiments that will inform county or state leaders if they take up the issue, she added.

“I think it is the right thing to do for the public, the right thing to do for the environment and the right thing to do for generations to come,” Sanger said.

Hallfin opined, “I think we’re moving in the right direction, not the wrong direction.”

The council is set to finalize the ordinance at its meeting Monday, Dec. 21. The ordinance will not go into effect until 2017, giving the city time to develop a list of approved products and exemptions and to conduct education and outreach activities.

Contact Seth Rowe at [email protected]