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For years, Minneapolis has banned non-compostable, non-recyclable to-go containers. Starting Jan. 1, black plastic, which isn't compatible with recycling equipment, was included in that ban's enforcement.

With a fresh nudge from city inspectors, restaurants are getting up to speed.

"If you still have black plastic to-go containers, check with your supplier to see if you can return them," reads a January notice from the city's health department. The memo followed at least five other notices the department has sent to restaurants since the summer of 2023.

Technically, black plastic should have been to-go non grata since at least 2019, when the city formally declared the ubiquitous stuff "non-recyclable" because its lack of transparency makes it undetectable to recycling equipment sensors. As such, "black plastic is trash," numerous city advisories state.

The city was in the process of updating its "Green-To-Go" rules when the pandemic hit, hammering restaurants and upsetting supply chains. Now, restaurants across the metro area, which saw a spike in takeout business during COVID, are increasingly subject to restrictions on how they can package their food.

Roseville is considering whether to join Edina and St. Louis Park in banning foam containers, which can technically be recycled but aren't collected as recyclables because the market for them is so weak.

St. Paul's ban on foam containers and black plastic took effect in 2022 and is based entirely on people notifying the city when they see a restaurant not following the rule. Since then, the city has received only four complaints, spokesman Casey Rodriguez said. But order enough takeout in St. Paul, and foam is sure to show up sooner or later.

Minneapolis' history with regulating food containers dates back decades, but its modern incarnation took effect on Earth Day 2014, when the city "rebanned" polystyrene and updated its enforcement rules as part of its ambition to become "zero waste" by 2030. (The city's current goal is to have 80% of refuse be placed into either the recycling bin or the compost heap by 2030.)

"The Green-to-Go ordinance was created to reduce the city's waste stream and what ends up in landfills," Cindy Weckwerth, Minneapolis' environmental health director, said in a statement. "Removing take-out containers that are trash from the waste stream helps to move us closer to the city's zero waste goals. We encourage all restaurants to do their part and use recyclable, compostable, or reusable to-go containers."

Compliance and enforcement

According to city data from 2019, compliance hovers around 90% — meaning that one out of every ten restaurants inspected are found to be violating the rules.

Minneapolis enforces the ban through its health inspectors during restaurant inspections, as well as responding to complaints via 311.

Repeat violations could eventually put an establishment's license in peril. However, city Health Department officials haven't done anything like that.

"Our inspectors are focusing on education," department spokesman Scott Wasserman said. "Health inspectors will call out the violation during an inspection or visit a food establishment if a complaint is made."

Both the Minneapolis and St. Paul ordinances allow for flexibility if supplies of compostable or recyclable containers are hard to come by — a problem that arose as the world emerged from the coronavirus pandemic and supply chains buckled.

'Clean and pretty'

Foam containers aren't piled up on counters in Minneapolis restaurants, the way it used to be, but black plastic wasn't hard to find until recently. Several downtown restaurants told the Star Tribune that they learned of the ban from inspectors or newsletters and are serving their way through their old inventory or have recently converted.

That was the case with Mother Dough, a patisserie-themed cafe in Capella Tower, where bread and quiches are baked daily and salad is the side of choice — usually served in a black plastic bowl with a clear plastic lid.

"It looked clean and pretty, so when I learned we had to change, it took a little while to find the right containers," pastry chef Tomi Sawyer said, noting that greens smeared along the bottom of a clear plastic bowl doesn't exactly scream haute cuisine — but is increasingly being seen in restaurants complying with the city's ban.

Sawyer said it cost slightly more to switch: a carton of 150 black plastic containers is $57.33, while the same size carton of clear plastic ones is $57.88. The restaurant also uses paper and cardboard containers, which can often be composted, and sometimes recycled if there's not too much oil or grease on the container.

"I think we've got it figured out now," she said.