More than 300 cities and 55 countries around the world have banned single-use plastics in an effort to reduce the millions of pounds of plastic trash clogging our lakes and oceans.
Chicago could be next.
On Wednesday, Ald. Scott Waguespack (32) and Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10) introduced an ordinance that looks to significantly cut down how many plastic forks, plates and spoons are doled out by restaurants and other businesses in the city.
The ordinance calls for a total elimination of polystyrene, or styrofoam, foodware. The notorious packaging is not biodegradable.
The ordinance is supported by Ald. George Cardenas (12), Ald. Matt Martin (47), Ald. Brian Hopkins (2), Maria Hadden (49) and Michele Smith (43).
This ordinance would be the Midwest’s strongest, said Jen Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council.
“It’s time for Chicago to step up and lead the Great Lakes region,” Walling said.
Aldermen worked with the Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, Illinois PIRG, the Illinois Environmental Council, the Recycling Coalition and the Alliance for the Great Lakes to draft the ordinance.
“Only 9 percent of all plastic produced is recycled in Chicago,” supporters of the ordinance said in a statement. “The rest ends up in landfills, along our streets, in gutters and eventually in our water.”
Groups that advocate for people with disabilities also helped with the ordinance. Access Living looked at and tested straw and foodware alternatives and weighed in on the proposed ordinance.
Starting in 2021, restaurants where patrons eat in would be required to use reusable foodware like bowls and plates.
There would be exceptions — like restaurants being able to use plastic straws, paper napkins and foil wrappers — but those items would largely need to be compostable or recyclable.
To help, the city would maintain a list of businesses that sell compostable and recyclable foodware. Full and partial waivers for up to one year would be available to restaurants if the city determined there were no “suitable and affordable” foodware products available.
Restaurants that don’t have the ability to wash dishes and can’t contract out that work would also be able to get a partial or full waiver.
Customers would be able to bring in their own reusable cups, though restaurants would be able to opt not to use those cups if they were damaged, inappropriate in size or dirty, among other things. Instead, restaurants would give the customers a reusable cup that could be used at the eatery or a disposable cup if the customer wants to take the drink elsewhere.
The ordinance also seeks to limit, though not outright ban, other types of plastic packaging: Restaurants could give disposable foodware accessories — like forks — to customers if their patrons asked for them, but those items wouldn’t be able to be packaged in plastic.
And eateries would be “encouraged” to use dispensers for condiments rather than small, plastic packages.
The city would also provide restaurants with printable signs indicating where items could be tossed to be recycled, composted or thrown out.
“When plastics enter our water, they do not disappear,” the Illinois Environmental Council said in a statement. “They break down into microplastics, which cannot be filtered by water treatment plants, and end up in our food and drinking water.”
Sam Toia, president and CEO of the Illinois Restaurant Association, said he hopes the aldermen consider the “financial hardship” a plastics ban would have on restaurant owners, especially as many operate with thin profit margins.
“Any proposed regulations on plastics need to consider the additional financial hardships that will be placed on operators and implications for safety and sanitation, customer requests, drive-thru areas, medical necessity of plastic foodware and other considerations,” Toia said. “We look forward to being a part of this important conversation.”
Sadlowski Garza, who has nine landfills in her ward, said today’s “throwaway culture” is unsustainable at a Wednesday morning news conference.
“I’m very proud of us … for taking a stance on this,” Sadlowski Garza said. “It’s our to job to make sure our environment is sustainable.”
Adam Ballard, a policy analyst for Access Living, said his organization worked with aldermen and community partners early on in creating the proposed ordinance. The group specifically made sure the ordinance would require restaurants to provide single-use plastic straws for customers who need them.
“The single use plastic straw is a really important way to be able to drink and hydrate for some people out there,” said Ballard, who added plastic straws were invented as a tool for people with disabilities. “We want to make sure we’re not leaving anybody in our community behind.”
Waguespack, one of the ordinance’s supporters, said the Great Lakes and Chicago River need to be “cleaned up.” When he kayaks, he sees piles of small trash — much of it single-use plastic.
“It doesn’t just harm our children, it harms our wildlife, too,” Waguespack said.
Michelle Thoma-Culver, president of the Chicago Recycling Coalition, said everyone eats, drinks and breathes microplastics every day.
“The plague of plastics in our environment is real and serious,” she said. “Chicagoans are up for this challenge.”
The city tried to limit plastic bag use by implementing a tax in 2017, forcing those who wanted one to pay 7 cents at grocery stores and other businesses. According to a study done one month after the ban was implemented, the use of plastic bags by Chicagoans dropped 42 percent in the first month.
The measure will need approval from the full City Council in order to advance.