HYDE PARK — A group of soon-to-be seventh graders at William H. Ray Elementary School is anxiously waiting to see if City Council will pass their proposal to ban Styrofoam food containers in Chicago.
The proposed ordinance, inspired by legislation in cities like New York and Seattle, would prohibit restaurants and street carts from using Styrofoam packaging.
As the sixth graders researched thermal energy and insulating materials this past school year, they came across “a ton of negative stuff” about Styrofoam, science teacher Vicki Drewa said. Drewa has run point for the students’ initiative.
“They asked, ‘Why are we using this stuff if it’s bad for environment, if it’s bad for people?'” she said. “The only reason is it’s cheaper than everything else.”
The initiative didn’t start out with the intention of submitting a proposed ordinance, Drewa said. The students’ first step was to call about 70 Hyde Park restaurants, asking what type of container they used.
Most hung up immediately or brushed off the kids’ concerns, though about 30 took the time to talk with the students about how environmentally unfriendly Styrofoam is, Drewa said.
In follow-up letters, the students proposed the restaurants use compostable boxes as a more efficient alternative. Results of in-class experiments showed compostable boxes kept rice six Celsius degrees warmer than Styrofoam.
But their efforts didn’t go far; No restaurants responded to the November 2018 letters to say they’d make a switch, Drewa said.
“The kids were deflated at first, thinking, ‘Now what do we do? Does it make sense to contact other restaurants?'” she said.
In April, Illinois State Senator Robert Peters (D-Chicago), a Ray Elementary alumnus, visited the school. Peters told the students to send their ideas to his office, Drewa said.
The class sent 60 or 70 letters to Peters and other local elected officials and waited for a response.
With their efforts at a standstill, Drewa and school officials invited former Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn to speak about how to “make things happen in democracy,” Quinn said.
He informed the students that the city code allows residents to submit ordinances to the City Clerk’s office for introduction to City Council.
Quinn’s guidance proved to be a turning point.
By June, an ordinance was drafted and delivered to City Hall. It was introduced to council and assigned to the Committee on Environmental Protection and Energy on July 24.
Committee chair Ald. George Cardenas (12th) said there is no exact timeline for a hearing on the proposal, although he said he will “try to slot it in” for mid-to-late October.
Cardenas “would love to have” a Styrofoam ban on the books in Chicago, he said. The restaurant industry shows signs of getting rid of the material on its own, but the city “needs to push them a little faster to make sure they’re on board.”
“It’s a bygone era of packaging that needs to go away,” Cardenas said.
The alderman said it’s “not frequent at all” that a citizen submits an ordinance to council; even less so for a group of children.
Yet student action has been influential in a few similar campaigns. Baltimore City Public School students fought for their city’s ban, while high schoolers have pressured officials to do the same in Buffalo, N.Y.
As the students begin the new school year, they await the committee’s decision. Many of the students will return to Ray Elementary for seventh grade, but Drewa will no longer be their teacher.
Drewa credits Quinn for ignoring the students’ ages and instead treating their concerns as seriously as he would any other citizen.
“When he came in and spoke, he wasn’t trying to patronize them,” Drewa said. “It helped the kids discover what it takes to get a law passed and be a part of history in a sense.”
Yet the credit goes to the students, Quinn said, who are the first group of grammar school kids to propose a Chicago ordinance that he knows of. He is simply glad to have been a resource for them.
“It’s inspiring to see a great teacher and students come together,” Quinn said. “This is democracy in action.”
Read the proposed ordinance below:
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