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Restaurants worry about cost of proposed limits on single-use plastics and foam food containers

Ald. Scott Waguespack’s ‘Plastic Free Water’ ordinance would give restaurants and take-out joints until Jan. 1, 2021, to stop selling or serving food in polystyrene containers and limit use of plastic utensils and straws.

A food cart worker fills a styrofoam take-out container with food for a customer on December 19, 2013 in New York City. 
Chicago restaurants and carryout places would be prohibited from using foam containers under a proposal to combat “plastic pollution.”
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Foam to-go boxes could be banned and single-use plastics could be limited at Chicago restaurants under a sweeping ordinance proposed by a top mayoral ally Wednesday to curb “plastic pollution.”

The “Plastic-Free Water” ordinance championed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Finance Committee Chairman Scott Waguespack (32nd) would give restaurants and carryout joints until Jan. 1, 2021 to stop serving food in the polystyrene containers commonly used by small neighborhood restaurants or for to-go orders. Instead, restaurants must use reusable dishes for dine-in orders and recyclable or compostable containers for to-go food.

Restaurants that aren’t able to wash dishes or contract out that work can request a full or partial waiver under the ordinance.

Additionally, restaurants would have to cut back on disposable foodware items like plastic eating utensils by providing them only by request or at a self-service station.

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) discusses the “Plastic Free Water” ordinance that would ban foam containers and limit plastic utensils in Chicago.
Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) discusses the “Plastic Free Water” ordinance that would ban foam containers and limit plastic utensils in Chicago.
Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

Plastic drinking straws will also be available when specifically requested. That exception was made at the request of Access Living to accommodate customers with disabilities who “need plastic straws to live,” the sponsors said.

Customers would also be allowed to bring their own reusable cups when dining. Restaurants could offer reusable cups for dining-in and disposable cups with lids, spill plugs or sleeves for delivery or take-out service.

Jen Walling, president of the Illinois Environmental Council, hailed the proposed ordinance as the “strongest ordinance in the Midwest” and a “mirror” of some of the strongest ordinances in the country.

“We know that the plastic pollution is a problem in communities across Illinois. And our hope as the Illinois Environmental Council is that the city demonstrating leadership on this issue can motivate the state legislature to pass similar legislation protecting the entire state,” Walling said.

But Illinois Restaurant Association President Sam Toia argued the ordinance would impose a severe hardship on restaurants already forced to endure a host of increased costs. They include a higher minimum wage, an increased restaurant tax, paid sick leave, a ban on plastic bags that was ultimately replaced by a bag tax, a predictable scheduling ordinance and higher property taxes.

“There’s a lot of anxiety out there with these small-business owners. A lot of education and communication needs to go on on both sides to see if we can get to a middle and not kill the quick-service, small restaurants that are the backbone of our 77 neighborhoods,” Toia said.

Toia said there is no question the proposed ban would “add to the cost” of running a restaurant and reduce already slim profit margins.

“There are some restaurants out there that buy for the year or six months in advance. What if they have a whole warehouse of straws and plasticware? How do we deal with that? They would have to eat all of that cost?” Toia said.

Leonel Rodriguez, 53, owner and founder of Step Down Café, speaks about being concerned if the prices of eco-friendly utensils and cups will rise because of the city ordinance, Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020, in Pilsen.
Leonel Rodriguez, 53, owner and founder of Step Down Café, said he is worried the prices of eco-friendly utensils and cups will rise because of the “Plastic Free Water” ordinance proposed Wednesday in City Council.
Ahlaam Delange/Sun-Times

Leonel Rodriguez, 53, who owns Step Down Café in Pilsen, reacted to the ordinance with minor concern. He said he already replaced some of his plastic cups with biodegradable options because his younger customers requested them, but the proposed changes could be costly.

“It is good for the environment, but it is more expensive for the owner,” Rodriguez said.

Gaby Ramirez, a barista in Pilsen, said the ordinance needs more options for people who rely heavily on single-use plastic items.

Alberto Landeros, manager of Casa Indigo in Pilsen, agreed but said his cafe has already cut down on its plastic utensil use. He said the cafe stopped carrying plastic straws, but customers kept requesting them.

“We try to use the least amount of plastic, but it gets hard,” Landeros said.

Alberto Landeros, 23, manager of Casa Indigo, says the ordinance may be hard for people that rely heavily on plastic, Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020.
Alberto Landeros, 23, manager of Casa Indigo, says the ordinance may be difficult for people that rely heavily on plastic.
Ahlaam Delange/Sun-Times

Toia also raised health concerns about allowing customers to use “their own Tupperware and plasticware” to carry the food and beverages they buy.

“What if that glass that you’re bringing in, that container you’re bringing in is not clean. There’s bacteria in that glass. You get a food-borne illness. The restaurant would say, `That wasn’t us,’” Toia said.

Walling and Waguespack scoffed at those arguments. They argued there are cost-effective alternatives to foam and plastics and that the trail blazed in other environmentally conscious cities like San Francisco is proof-positive that the restaurant industry can not only adjust but thrive under a similar ban.

Waguespack pointed to Chicago’s dismal 9% recycling rate and its costly recycling contracts as evidence of the need to do something more dramatic to reduce landfill costs. He added that many restaurant companies are already looking to reduce their waste.

“We’re moving slowly on this. We’re not trying to put anybody in a position where it’s economically unfeasible to do this,” the alderman said.

Lightfoot said Wednesday she doesn’t know enough about the proposed ban to comment on it.

Plastic utensils
Plastic utensils would be available only upon request under the “Plastic Free Water” ordinance.
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Contributing: Jake Wittich