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Plastic waste problem ‘amplified’ by the pandemic: a Sun-Times/ABC7 special report

A push to reduce single-use plastic in takeout food packaging in Chicago is on hold. To get an idea of the impact of increased takeout dining, we invited an expert to a picnic.

Sun-Times reporter Stephanie Zimmermann (from left), ABC7 reporter Jason Knowles and Jennifer Dunn of the Northwestern-Argonne Institute of Science and Engineering having a takeout picnic to look at the amount of plastic waste even one takeout or delivery meal creates.
Sun-Times reporter Stephanie Zimmermann (from left), ABC7 reporter Jason Knowles and Jennifer Dunn of the Northwestern-Argonne Institute of Science and Engineering having a takeout picnic to look at the amount of plastic waste even one takeout or delivery meal creates.
ABC7

As the coronavirus pandemic pushes people to get more takeout and delivery food, it’s also having another effect: putting at least a temporary halt to the progress of a proposal to reduce single-use plastics and entirely ban polystyrene foam — Styrofoam — at Chicago restaurants.

To get an idea of the impact of that and of how much plastic waste is created even by just one meal, the Chicago Sun-Times and ABC7 ordered a bunch of takeout and delivery food and had an outdoor, socially distanced picnic.

Click here to see the ABC7 report

On our picnic blanket: pizza, chicken wings, salads, a cheeseburger and fries, Chinese food and burritos.

Some of it arrived in in compostable cardboard containers or easily recycled aluminum trays.

But there also was a lot of plastic.

And worse, in terms of the environment, some of the orders came nestled in polystyrene foam, commonly known by the trademarked name Styrofoam, which restaurants often use for takeout packaging and which isn’t recyclable.

Those single-use items will “probably last at least a century, maybe longer than a century,” according to Jennifer Dunn, director of research for the Northwestern-Argonne Institute of Science and Engineering, who assessed the pile of waste.

Single-use plastics common with takeout food, along with plastic bags — which have seen a resurgence at stores because of COVID-19 — are just one part of the plastic waste problem. Waste produced by health professionals to keep people safe from the virus — face masks, gloves, plastic gowns, face shields — also is piling up.

Jennifer Dunn, director of research for the Northwestern-Argonne Institute of Science and Engineering.
Jennifer Dunn, director of research for the Northwestern-Argonne Institute of Science and Engineering.
ABC7

During the pandemic, consumption of single-use plastics including medical equipment, is estimated to have increased by as much as 250% to 300%, according to the International Solid Waste Association.

And then there are all of those extra boxes from the additional online shopping so many of us have been doing. But much of those cardboard boxes is engineered to be recyclable — if people do that.

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) had championed the proposed Chicago ordinance last January. It would ban polystyrene containers, require reusable dishes for dining in and mandate recyclable or compostable containers for to-go orders.

But that push has been put off because restrictions that have been imposed due to the pandemic meant “our restaurants were really under siege,” Waguespack says, with many closing and most struggling financially.

Citywide, Chicago recycles only about 8% or 9% of its waste.

Jaclyn Wegner, the Shedd Aquarium’s director of conservation action, says plastics pose a danger to waterways that goes beyond littering rivers and lakes. Over time, they also degrade into microplastics — tiny particles that fish and other aquatic life consume at their peril.

The average American throws away an estimated 270 pounds of plastic each year per capita, Wegner says. “It was a problem before the pandemic. And now we are just seeing it amplified.”

Jaclyn Wegner, director of conservation action for the Shedd Aquarium.
Jaclyn Wegner, director of conservation action forthe Shedd Aquarium.
ABC7

Sam Toia, president of the Illinois Restaurant Association, says he supports voluntary efforts but that “any proposed regulations on plastics need to consider the additional financial hardships that will be placed on operators when they can least afford it.”

Environmental activists, aware of restaurants’ financial struggles, are shifting their approach, focusing on educating business owners and consumers on the benefits of compostable and reusable items “to show that this is possible, that it won’t necessarily increase costs and that it is safe during the pandemic,” says Paloma Paez-Coombe of Environment Illinois.

Many restaurants use polystyrene foam — Styrofoam — for takeout orders, but it can’t be recycled.
Many restaurants use polystyrene foam — Styrofoam — for takeout orders, but it can’t be recycled.
ABC7

Some restaurants and other food businesses have gone ahead and ditched single-use plastics.

Eco & The Flamingo, which touts itself as a “zero-waste” general store, opened in Lincoln Square in June. It sells dry goods such as flour, rice, pasta, popcorn, dried fruits, coffee, granola and spices and household items like shampoo, soap and laundry detergent. Customers bring in their own containers, and the shop fills and weighs them, like general stores did in the really old days.

“It just makes us feel good every single day,” says co-owner Bethany Barbouti, who, because of the recent surge in COVID-19, is temporarily offering in-store shopping by appointment only.

Containers of liquid dish soap, laundry detergent, hand soap and hand sanitizer at Eco & The Flamingo, a “zero-waste” store in Lincoln Square. Bulk foods are displayed along a wall.
Containers of liquid dish soap, laundry detergent, hand soap and hand sanitizer at Eco & The Flamingo, a “zero-waste” store in Lincoln Square. Bulk foods are displayed along a wall.
Provided

Last month, Burger King announced a pilot program to test reusable containers for sandwiches, soft drinks and coffee. Customers will pay a small deposit that they’ll get back when they return the packaging.

Consumers also can help reduce waste, Dunn says, by doing things like asking restaurants to not use foam containers or not include unneeded plastic utensils with their orders.

Not over-ordering and walking to pick up your meal also helps, Dunn says.

“You see the packaging, and you can get overwhelmed,” she says. But “there’s other aspects of that meal that have potentially a greater influence on the environment.”

Contributing: ABC7’s Jason Knowles, Ann Pistone