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Oak Park inches closer to plastic-free restaurants

Village board approves motion to have staff draft ordinance

February 11th, 2020 2:47 PM

By Stacey Sheridan

Staff Reporter

Single-use plastics and polystyrene foam containers could be banned in Oak Park restaurants under a plan approved by village trustees Monday night. The board directed village staff to draw up an ordinance codifying that action.  

The ever-increasing threat of global warming and looming mountains of discarded plastics found in the deepest ocean crevices, prompting such documentaries as "A Plastic Ocean," inspired many Oak Park citizens to speak out in support of the ban.

 "All the plastic that's ever been produced is still with us," Diane Pickard Richardson told the board. 

While all six trustees voted to move ahead toward an ordinance, several trustees and Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb, himself a restaurant owner, said the village needs to hear from local business owners to understand the financial impact this action might have on them. Abu-Taleb opposed a draft ordinance being requested.

In March of last year, a beached whale in the Philippines died with 88 lbs. of plastic lodged in its stomach. A month later, a pregnant sperm whale died. Her stomach had almost 50 lbs. of plastic.

The restaurant industry uses its fair share of plastics – takeout containers, carryout bags, cutlery and to-go cups with lids and straws.

"Our unhealthy addiction to plastic is destroying the environment," Richard Gibbs told the board.

Phyllis Rubin encouraged the board to take advantage of the many volunteers willing to help make Oak Park plastic-free.

"The ball is in your court. Use us. We want to help you," she said.

Dick Alton invoked his late partner Sally Stovall's passion for preserving and protecting the environment and cited the 2019 elimination of single-use plastic bags and Styrofoam packaging at Oak Park's Trader Joe's. 

"In 2019, Trader Joe's eliminated more than 1 million pounds of plastic," he said. 

 Alton wants to see the board implement a restaurant-wide ban by Earth Day, celebrated annually on April 22.

In November 2019, the village's Environment and Energy Commission recommended the board prohibit in all eating establishments the use of single-use plastics, including polystyrene and plastic no. 6, which the village does not recycle. 

Due to the necessity of some products, particularly straws for people with disabilities, the recommendation has a stipulation that restaurants can provide single-use plastics upon customer request. Customers would not have to pay a fee for them either.

"The recommendation goes beyond straws to other single use plastics that are contributing to an unsustainable waste stream running directly through the village of Oak Park," the recommendation reads.

The recommendation also includes incentives to encourage restaurant participation, such as a $200 rebate "available to eligible participants to cover initial implementation costs recognizing that compostable replacements for single use plastics may be more expensive."

The commission would like to see the funds used for the rebate come out of the village's sustainability fund. 

The recommendation also states the village would offer further incentives for establishments that "set up zero-waste systems and arrange compost hauling for up to $500 for the first year."

It also called for the annual recognition of "Plastic-Free July."

Environment and Energy Commission Chair Laura Derks and Commissioner Steve Morales attended the Feb. 10 to give further information and answer questions.

The commission understands how important it is that the village get businesses on board with the ordinance, they said.

 "What we realize is that all the businesses, and the board has recognized this, need education, education of their staff," said Morales. "That is not an insignificant thing because those people also educate others."

Derks, who lives in a zero-waste household, brought examples of compostable materials, including uncoated paper plates and wooden utensils.

"When I look at single-use plastics used in eating establishments, I want to understand what that is – I don't know how you'd quantify that – relative to single-use plastic bags in grocery stores," asked Trustee Jim Taglia.

 In 2017, Oak Park's village board began requiring local grocery stores to charge a 10 cent per bag fee for plastic bags in an effort to persuade shoppers to carry reusable bags into the store. According to Taglia, over 100,000 single-use bags are purchased at Oak Park grocery stores per month. 

"To me, that seems like maybe we should be thinking of that," he said. 

Taglia went on to say that banning single-use plastics in restaurants is also important and he supports it "but it seems much smaller in scope and size."

Derks told him to consider the amount of plastic refuse the Lake Theatre creates daily.

Morales referenced teen environmentalist Greta Thunberg, saying, "We can't hit on one thing and hit it hard."

He continued, "This supports businesses to go a step further. We want to really hit this from all angles."

For Taglia, the ordinance seemed hard to enforce. He said he'd like to see something easily enforceable.

Upon passage of the ordinance, Derks recommended a 90-day compliance and education period with training for businesses.

She noted that the village cannot legally refer businesses to vendors but mentioned that potentially the Oak Park-River Forest Chamber of Commerce could compile a list of sustainable suppliers.

"I find these to be inspired recommendations. I want to commend you guys for that," said Trustee Deno Andrews. 

Andrews said that many restaurants buy from restaurant supply company Sysco, which has a wide array of sustainable and compostable products.

"I'm totally on board with this and I like where we're going," said Trustee Arti Walker-Peddakotla.

Trustees Susan Buchanan and Simone Boutet gave their support for the recommendations but also felt the need to understand the financial impact the requirements may have on small businesses. 

Boutet also agreed with Trustee Dan Moroney, who felt it important to have the restaurant community voice their concerns.

Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb, himself a restaurant owner, agreed, noting the importance of protecting the planet but also that "small businesses are really having a tough time."

Abu-Taleb also said he wouldn't support anything without getting businesses informed and on board and gave the singular vote against the motion to have staff draft an ordinance.

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