A plastic straw ban was endorsed by Chicago voters on Election Day, and an ordinance could be on the way — but not everyone is happy about it.
“Should the City of Chicago ban the use of plastic straws within the corporate city limits?” was one of three non-binding questions on the ballot.
Though it passed by a nearly 11-percentage-point margin, environmental advocates warned that the question oversimplifies the issue — and the results show a divided response between the North and South sides of the city.
Voters in 15 wards — mostly on the South and West sides — were against the ban, with “No” votes ranging from 53 to 60 percent. But North Side and downtown wards were among the 35 that favored it, with support ranging from 63 to 66 percent.
Straws and other single-use plastic items have been targeted in anti-pollution campaigns for the harm they can cause to aquatic creatures — and for their lasting presence in landfills.
Jennifer Caddick of the Alliance for the Great Lakes said it was a disappointment to see an environmental issue used as a “filler item” and “political maneuver.”
The straw ban was one of three non-binding referendums placed on the ballot by aldermen in what many saw as an attempt to crowd out a binding question on mayoral term limits proposed by former Gov. Pat Quinn.
“We need real conversations about these that bring all parties to the table, not just token, non-binding ballot questions,” Caddick said.
But Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th), who plans to propose a City Council ordinance, said environmental groups had the opportunity ahead of the election to raise awareness on the issue.
“This was a question posed to voters in the city of Chicago. Nothing stopped them from participating in the electoral process, putting ads or awareness campaigns based on the issue,” Lopez said.
Disability rights advocates nationwide have spoken out against such bans; they say people who have limited motion in their arms, or limited mouth control, need straws to be able to drink. With more restaurants and public places limiting the availability of straws, Adam Ballard of Access Living has had to voice his concerns.
“It’s very frustrating that this was even put on the ballot without any consultation with us,” Ballard said. “I didn’t even realize this was on the ballot until I voted two weeks ago.”
Still, the anti-straw trend that has gained momentum nationwide means restaurants and plastic manufacturers know what to expect, industry leaders said.
Sam Toia, president and CEO of the Illinois Restaurant Association, said his members were “not surprised by this outcome” and plan to be part of future discussions.
“Restaurateurs and chefs champion the environment as well as best practices that will lend to their overall sustainability efforts,” Toia said. “Many of our members have already switched to non-plastic straws alternatives.”
Like much of the South Side, wards near Diamond Plastics in the Pullman neighborhood — which produces straws that it sells to major companies like McDonald’s and Portillo’s — mostly voted against the straw ban. In response to anti-straw sentiment, the company recently introduced a new product — the “bio-straw” — that can degrade in six months.
“I have a very outspoken community. They like what they like,” said Ald. Michelle Harris (8th); Diamond Plastics is in her ward. She said she opposes an ordinance banning plastic straws.
Access Living’s Ballard noted such sweeping environmental policies can have unintended adverse impacts on low-income communities.
“A blanket straw ban probably seems like an unnecessary intervention to communities with challenges to overcome that seem bigger and more immediate than plastic pollution,” Ballard said.
And Caddick said straws are only one plastic item clogging landfills; there’s also polystyrene containers and plastic bags, among other items.
“We would encourage City Council to think comprehensively about the plastic pollution issue. Straws are one piece of the problem,” Caddick said. “If they do consider a straw ban, they should work to include the perspective of everybody that would be affected.”
Contributing: Tanveer Ali