Didn’t Minneapolis ban foam packaging decades ago?

The proposed ban on plastic foam containers in Minneapolis restaurants may give some residents a sense of déjà vu.

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A handmade sign greets visitors to Minneapolis City Council Member Andrew Johnson’s office. He’s pushing for the city to ban expanded polystyrene containers, commonly referred to as Styrofoam. MPR Photo / Curtis Gilbert

It's something the city first tried to do 25 years ago. In fact, the law is still on the books, and there's a nearly identical ordinance in St. Paul. The prohibitions just haven't been enforced.

"This is a redo, a retake, if you will," said Minneapolis City Council Member Andrew Johnson, who is sponsoring the new proposed ban.

More than 100 U.S. cities now ban food containers made from expanded polystyrene, commonly referred to by the brand name Styrofoam. But when Minneapolis and St. Paul attempted to ban virtually all plastic food packaging in 1989, such measures were unprecedented.

The Twin Cities made national news, spawning stories in the Chicago Tribune, The New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer, among others.

In those days, plastic recycling programs were rare, and the city ordinance banned all food packaging that couldn't be recycled or returned to the vendor. It was an ambitious measure, but it turned out to be mostly symbolic.

"I don't think the expectation was that only in Minneapolis and St. Paul would certain products -- that were wrapped in plastic every place else -- have a different distribution method," said former City Council Member Steve Cramer. "It was a statement of concern."

Cramer says the ordinance started a conversation about plastic waste and spurred the city to start recycling some plastic items.

The new proposed ordinance is more narrowly tailored, because it only targets restaurant food, as opposed to pre-packaged items produced outside the city. It also singles out expanded polystyrene, which is now one of the only types of plastic the city still doesn't recycle.

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