Mayoral ally proposes ban on ‘single-use foodware’

Sealed bags — filled with everything from plastic silverware, chopsticks, wipes and condiments to salt, pepper and napkins — would no longer be automatically included in take-out meals and deliveries.

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Plastic utensils typically included in takeout orders.

Restaurants would no longer include those little bags of utensils and condiments with takeout orders unless customers request them, under a proposed ordinance. But compliance is voluntary and the measure, introduced at Wednesday’s Chicago City Council meeting, includes no fines for non-compliance.

Sun-Times photo

The pandemic that twice forced Chicago restaurants to close their dining room and rely on take-out to stay alive halted plans to prohibit restaurants from using foam containers and requiring them to provide plastic straws and food utensils, only on request.

But now that those dining and capacity restrictions have been lifted, the effort to curb “plastic pollution” is back on track.

At Wednesday’s City Council meeting, Health and Environmental Protection Committee Chairman George Cardenas (12th) joined Ald. Samantha Nugent (39th) in introducing an ordinance prohibiting Chicago restaurants from automatically distributing what he calls “single-use foodware.”

That would mean those sealed bags filled with everything from plastic silverware, chopsticks, wipes and condiments to salt, pepper and napkins no longer would be automatically included in take-out meals and deliveries to customers who don’t really need them, since they have silverware at home.

Customers still could request them, however.

Drive-through restaurants and airport concessions would be exempt, on the grounds that their customers “expect to be given single-use foodware” and often need those utensils to eat in the car, on the plane or at the gate.

The proposed ban also does not cover plastic straws, beverage lids, sleeves for hot coffee and tea and “single-use foodware pre-packaged or attached to food or beverage products by the manufacturer.”

The ordinance proposed Wednesday is more narrow than the plastic pollution ban championed by Finance Committee Chairman Scott Waguespack (32nd) two months before the stay-at-home shutdown triggered by the pandemic.

It would not ban foam containers used for sandwiches and other carry out meals.

Illinois Restaurant Association President Sam Toia said he likes the piecemeal approach a whole lot better than the more sweeping version.

“The restaurant industry has been decimated over the last 15 months. We can’t just start throwing on more regulations that are gonna cost ’em even more money. A lot of restaurants are having labor shortages. Between the cost and implementing it right now, it would be another hardship on an industry that is just coming out of a once-in-a-century pandemic,” Toia said.

“Even in good times,” as much as 97 cents of every dollar Chicago restaurants take in “goes out for product costs, labor costs and fixed costs,” Toia noted.

“Let’s try to compromise on this. But let’s take it slowly as we move out of this pandemic and not put more regulation on the restaurant and hospitality industry.”

Cardenas agreed, which is we he opted for a go-slow approach, relying on voluntary compliance, with no fines for those that defy the ban.

“A lot of restaurants are not even fully open yet. Some are still just 50% occupied. Their staffing levels are not there. They’ve got huge losses to recover from. It would be a little unfair” to impose a more sweeping ban,” said Cardenas, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s deputy floor leader.

“We’ve got to phase it in. Look what just happened with the pandemic and our economy. Our city is just recovering. I want to phase some of this stuff in one piece at a time. This is do-able.”

Why should Chicago restaurants be prohibited from automatically distributing those packets of plastic silverware and condiments?

“Restaurants give everybody the plastic fork and the plastic spoon and all of that. And most of the time, consumers don’t even use it. It makes no sense. Think of the waste that is created on a daily basis by just having little pieces of plastic, putting the sauce on whatever you want and throwing it away,” Cardenas said.

“If people request because they’re not gonna be home, they’re gonna be at the office or someplace else, that makes sense to me.”

Waguespack, despite his more sweeping proposal, said he has no problem with the go-slow approach.

“There were people asking me to come back and push my ordinance. And I had mentioned that, at this moment, it wouldn’t be helpful to restaurants to have that full package. But I’m fine with them taking this step. My whole purpose is to kind of line us up with other cities around the world. This would kind of move us in that direction,” Waguespack said.

“The package that I put together was a much broader environmental piece. But this is fine with me. If the restaurant association is behind it, I’m wholeheartedly with them. It saves them money and it takes this stuff out of the bags that every one of us gets when we order” carryout.

Waguespack noted that, in Asia, consumers must pay 5 or 10 cents for condiments and plastic ware.

Restaurants there “save tons of money that could go right back into the business if they do it that way — whether they charge, or don’t even put it in there.”

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