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Minneapolis stepping up enforcement of ban on foam coffee cups, food containers

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Now they mean it.

More than two decades after Minneapolis officials banned polystyrene containers, the City Council on Friday voted unanimously to reduce the fine for violations, but to step up enforcement.

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The move could mean that the familiar white foam coffee cups and food to-go containers will soon -- and once and for all -- be removed from the fast-food landscape, and consequently from the city’s waste stream, said Council Member Andrew Johnson, who sponsored the measure. The measure also legalizes compostable food containers.

"Essentially, we’re going to start enforcing this, and it’s now improved," Johnson said. "We’re rebanning it."

The move primarily affects local restaurants and other establishments that send food out the door in polystyrene, also known as Styrofoam, which Johnson asserted can leach cancer-linked chemicals into food, particularly hot food.

Violators will pay an administrative fee, less than the fine for what had been a misdemeanor. But they’ll face tougher scrutiny, Johnson vowed.

City health and food inspectors will now be required to check for the rogue packaging, which they haven’t been doing consistently, apparently for years, he said. The public can also report violations on the city’s website or by calling 311, he added.

Inconsistent enforcement of ordinances is "not terribly surprising," Johnson said, but it is a burden for businesses that try to abide by the rules while others don’t, and for those that skirt the rules and elevate their risk of facing fines for violations, Johnson added.

He estimated there could be as many as 10 million polystyrene containers in Minneapolis trash each year. The material is essentially not recyclable because it is too hard to clean and there is little market for it. Allowing it in trash and recyclable materials adds costs to processing those, Johnson said, because people have to remove it before processing.

Friday’s move by the council also legitimizes compostable food containers. The previous ordinance had required that food containers either be recyclable or reusable (and polystyrene was in effect not recyclable), Johnson said.

Dozens of other cities around the country have also banned polystyrene containers.

The Minneapolis ban will take effect April 22, 2015 -- Earth Day.

The measure mandates that restaurants offer customers food only in cups, plates and to-go containers that are easily recyclable or compostable. Prepackaged food by a manufacturer would be excluded.

Council Member Cam Gordon noted that health department staff are available to help with the transition, and funding is available from Hennepin County grants and city loans.

Restaurants and other food sellers will also be required to provide recycling bins for recyclable containers and composting bins for compostable containers. The recyclable bin requirement is another that has apparently been long overlooked, Johnson said.

At a public hearing earlier this month, various small-business owners testified in support of the packaging restrictions. Some opponents who represent the packaging industry, though, told council members that it would take away consumers’ choices and that recycling polystyrene foam is possible.

Johnson said at the time that the city wants to think about any possible impact on businesses while at the same time working toward becoming a "zero waste" city.

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