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A ban down by the river

The Afton House Inn in Afton's historic downtown commercial district. Hannah Black / RiverTown Multimedia

Don't call it a plastic ban. It's more of a requirement, Afton City Council member Bill Palmquist said, for businesses to begin using compostables.

At its Sept. 18 meeting, the Afton City Council passed an ordinance requiring restaurants and businesses to use compostable single-use products in place of plastic. This includes things like take-out containers, disposable utensils and straws. It will take effect Oct. 1, 2019.

Palmquist first brought the issue to the council in July. He said it was about a year ago that he had gotten takeout. He noticed that the utensils that had come with his food seemed to be of great quality. When he turned them over, he saw they were marked as compostable.

"This was kind of my lightbulb moment, like, this stuff is really good," he said. "You wouldn't know unless you looked at it."

Palmquist said he even brought samples of compostable products to council meetings to show their quality. He compared it to plastic straw bans that have spread across the country in recent months, noting that businesses will still be allowed to provide bendable straws for people who request them.

The original language of the ordinance also banned plastic bags, requiring the use of compostable or paper bags instead. It was changed, however, because of a 2017 state statute that prohibits local governments in Minnesota from banning the use of plastic bags. The statute, slipped into a jobs bill, was a response to Minneapolis' attempt to ban plastic bags and was passed just one day before the city's ordinance was to go into effect.

Palmquist said there are "plenty of options" when it comes to biodegradable bags, and that the city is "highly encouraging" businesses to go the extra step and eliminate plastic bags.

There doesn't seem to be much resistance in Afton, though.

"We think it's the right thing to do, so we support it," said Becky Nickerson, treasurer of the Afton Area Business Association. Nickerson owns Selma's Ice Cream Parlour in downtown Afton, which claims to be the state's oldest ice cream shop. One year out from the ordinance taking effect, Selma's has already begun to transition away from the use of plastic products.

The Afton House Inn is also ahead of the curve. Dan Jarvis, one of the inn's owners, said all of the restaurant's to-go containers are compostable, and that they only use straws in certain drinks. Overall, he said, they don't use a lot of plastic other than garbage bags.

In his quest to pass the ordinance, Palmquist said he researched price comparisons between plastic and compostable products to make sure the cost difference wouldn't be "burdensome" for businesses. He said he found the prices to be pretty comparable when the products were purchased wholesale.

Jarvis said the restaurant also plans to switch to compostable straws soon, which he noticed are a little more expensive than plastic straws, but that hasn't deterred him.

Despite what Palmquist has said about the ordinance not being a ban, there are still consequences. The first violation will result in a written warning to the offending business or restaurant; the second, a $100 fine. The fine will double for each offense that follows within 24 months, up to $2,000.

Though such bans are still rare in the Twin Cities area, interest seems to be increasing. Both Palmquist and City Administrator Ron Moorse said other river towns had expressed interest in putting similar ordinances in place, though they wouldn't say which ones.

One city that already has a similar directive is St. Louis Park, a suburb just west of Minneapolis. The "Zero Waste Packaging Ordinance" has been in place since Jan. 1, 2017. According to the city's website, some businesses are still transitioning to full use of compostable products.

But while St. Louis Park has more than 45,000 residents, Afton has less than 3,000.

"Where our commercial district is, it's small, it's right by the river," Palmquist said. "I have a feeling most businesses will be in compliance before next October."

Hannah Black

Hannah Black is a reporter and photographer for the Woodbury Bulletin. She is a proud graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism. Outside of reporting, she enjoys running, going to museums and trying new coffee shops. Her favorite thing to do is spend time with her dog, Wendell.

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