Chicago Passes Watered-Down Plastic Foodware ‘Ban’ That Critics Call Greenwashing

Video: We speak with Jordan Parker of Bring It! Chicago about the city’s new ordinance on plastics. (Produced by Blair Paddock)

Under a new law passed Tuesday by a 37-10 vote from the Chicago City Council, restaurants will only be allowed to provide single-use “foodware” — a broad category that includes everything from plastic utensils to ketchup packets — if the items are requested by customers with takeout and delivery orders.

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“Plastic waste is at an all-time high,” said Ald. Samantha Nugent (39th Ward), who introduced the measure in June. “The goal here is to take the first step (toward) small, incremental change.”

Proponents of the measure include Angela Tovar, Chicago’s chief sustainability officer, who threw her support behind the law during a committee hearing Monday.

“It’s moving the needle forward,” Tovar said, adding that the law will provide momentum for further waste reduction. 

But critics said the legislation amounts to little more than so-called greenwashing.

The ordinance is “masquerading as a pro-environment step” when it’s actually pro-industry, said Jordan Parker, the activist behind Chicago’s plastic bag tax, who spoke out against the measure Monday.

A separate ordinance, introduced in January 2020, would have banned plastic foam to-go containers while similarly incorporating the “by request” component regarding serveware.

That legislation had the backing of the Coalition for Plastic Reduction but not the Illinois Restaurant Association.

The members of the coalition were not involved with the development of Nugent’s legislation but did offer a list of suggestions in an attempt to try to strengthen it after the fact, said Colleen Smith, deputy director of the Illinois Environmental Council. That feedback was not incorporated.

“We feel something that’s being disguised as meaningful action won’t have a meaningful outcome," Smith said. “Right now we need to make sure any step we take has an outcome that addresses the issue we’re trying to solve, which is the proliferation of plastics.”

Among the primary objections to the law: it lacks enforcement and there are a host of exceptions to it — establishments at O’Hare and Midway airports are exempt, as are drive-thru restaurants. Other exceptions include straws and beverage lids, along with “items used to contain or package food or beverages for delivery or take-out orders.”

Ald. George Cardenas (12th Ward), chairman of the Committee on Environmental Protection and Energy, defended the ordinance at Monday’s committee hearing.

Given the number of restaurants that have shuttered during the coronavirus pandemic, it would have been unfair to pass a sweeping plastics ban and create another burden for owners, he said.

“This is a starting point,” Cardenas said.

Many of his colleagues disagreed, with the measure squeaking out of committee in a 9-6 vote. During Tuesday’s full council vote, a number of “yea” votes were made in the spirit of “something is better than nothing.”

“This is an emergency,” said Ald. Michele Smith (43rd Ward). “We have been negligent for decades.”

Environmentalists vowed to hold officials to their promise of additional change and said they will continue to work on stronger efforts to curb plastic use.

“There are ways to approach this that deliver meaningful reduction without overburdening small businesses and consumers,” said Colleen Smith. “This debate has illuminated we need to do something with more teeth.” 

Note: This story was originally published Sept. 14, it has been updated to include our “Chicago Tonight” discussion.

Heather Cherone contributed to this report.

Contact Patty Wetli: @pattywetli | (773) 509-5623 |  [email protected]

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