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City Council committee approves watered-down ban on single-use utensils

Chicago restaurants could still hand out plastic silverware or other single-use items but only if asked — though compliance is voluntary, with no fines.

Plastic utensils typically included in takeout orders.
A proposed ordinance would allow Chicago restaurants to keep handing out plastic utensils, but only if asked.
Sun-Times photo

Chicago restaurants would be prohibited from automatically distributing “single-use foodware,” but compliance would be voluntary, and drive-through restaurants and airport concessionaires would be exempt under a watered-down ordinance advanced Monday.

By a surprisingly close vote of 9-to-6, the Chicago City Council Health and Environmental Protection Committee took a small step toward curbing “plastic pollution” but in a way that beleaguered city restaurant owners can swallow.

The ordinance jointly championed by Ald. Samantha Nugent (39th) and Health and Environmental Protection Committee Chairman George Cardenas (12th) would prohibit Chicago restaurants from distributing single-use foodware unless customers specifically request it.

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.

Drive-through restaurants and airport concessions would be exempt from the ban on the grounds that their customers “expect to be given single-use foodware” and often need 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 is far 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 “the timing is just not great” and he would prefer no restrictions at all for Chicago restaurants that were twice forced to close their dining rooms during the pandemic, and faced months of indoor capacity limits in between.

But if Chicago aldermen are hell-bent on doing something to curb plastic pollution, the Cardenas-Nugent version is the preferred alternative.

“It’s a step in the direction that environmentalists want to go. But it does not put on any financial penalties on restaurants at this point. The Waguespack [version] would put more mandates in place and more penalties in place,” Toia said Monday.

“We’re a highly-inspected industry. We get visited by the Health Department, Business Affairs and the Buildings Department throughout the year. We just don’t want to put any more mandates in place to make it harder for restaurant owners to operate in this new normal.”

Cardenas said he “feels the frustration” of environmentalists who prefer a stronger ordinance. But he steered clear of fines to ease the burden on a struggling industry hard-hit by the pandemic.

“In the last 16 months, 19 percent of restaurants in Chicago have shuttered. Owners of color along with their workers have been especially hit hard. Owners who survived the pandemic have huge losses to recover from,” Cardenas told his colleagues.

“It would be a little unfair to impose a more sweeping ban. ... A phased approach — one that does not impose a huge financial burden — is the way to go ... in the middle of a pandemic.”

Nugent noted that plastic waste has been “at an all-time high” since the pandemic started.

“When you order take-out delivery, it seems the bag is always half-full of plastic utensils, extra condiments and napkins,” she said.

Nugent said she worked with the Illinois Restaurant Association to craft an ordinance that would help restaurants “save money” without “negatively impacting” the industry.

“We don’t wish to penalize restaurants at this time for non-compliance, but to push both businesses and consumers in the right direction and to, of course, encourage good behavior. The goal here is to take a first step — not to boil the ocean,” she said.

During the public comment section that preceded Monday’s meeting, environmental advocate Jordan Parker urged aldermen to reject what she called the “pro-industry, pro-fossil fuel and pro-plastic” ordinance.

It would “do nothing to stop the endless tsunami of plastic.” Parker added.

“It will block critical and necessary legislation from being implemented at a later date and set dangerous precedent,” she said.

“The fossil fuel industry is pivoting to plastic as their new primary profit center and this ordinance will only exacerbate the hygiene theater brought on by the pandemic that restaurants are now exhibiting by placing even dine-in meals in to-go containers.”

Parker, founder of “Bring Your Bag,” pointed to the failed 2014 ban on plastic bags that “made a laughing stock out of City Council because it flooded Chicago with more plastic.”

“Long term, this ordinance will do the same. Which is why it’s fully supported by the Illinois Restaurant Association,” Parker said.

On the day the alternative had been introduced, Waguespack said he had no problem with the go-slow approach.

On Monday, he changed his mind, joining five other aldermen in voting no.