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Narrowed Plasticware Crackdown Set For Hearing As Tougher Version Remains On Shelf

Restaurants would be banned in most cases from sending customers home with unsolicited plasticware or condiment packets under an ordinance set to be considered Monday. But some say the measure doesn't go far enough.

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CITY HALL — Restaurants would almost always be banned from sending customers home with unsolicited plasticware, napkins or condiment packets under an ordinance set to be considered by aldermen on Monday. But supporters of a more sweeping plastics crackdown say the ordinance does not go far enough.

The City Council Committee on Environmental Protection and Energy is set to meet at 3 p.m. Monday to take up a proposal sponsored Ald. Samantha Nugent (39th) that aims to rein in restaurants’ uses of single-use plastics. 

Nugent, who is vice chair of the environmental protection committee, introduced the ordinance in June alongside committee chair Ald. George Cardenas (12th), Ald. Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez (33rd) and Ald. Michele Smith (43rd). The ordinance has since gained 24 co-sponsors in the City Council.

The measure bans restaurants from giving out “single-use foodware” with takeout orders unless “upon request from the customer.” The ban does not apply to “self-service stations,” where customers can grab their own napkins or condiments. 

The ordinance defines “single-use foodware” as including plastic utensils, stirrers, toothpicks, napkins, cup sleeves, disposable plates and condiment packets. It does not include straws, cup lids or food takeout containers. 

The legislation carves out multiple exceptions to the rule, including for hot beverage sleeves and “prepackaged” plasticware attached by a manufacturer. It would not apply to drive-thrus, Chicago’s airports or “any charitable food dispensing establishment.” And the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection would be able to grant waivers to individual businesses to exempt them from the rules. 

Nugent’s ordinance would go into effect four months after passage. 

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) proposed a similar ordinance, called the “Plastic-Free Water Ordinance,” in January 2020, but it never reached a vote. Waguespack’s ordinance would also ban unsolicited plasticware but it extends further, banning Styrofoam containers for businesses with more than 50 workers and setting a fee schedule for violations. It does not include carveouts for airports, drive-thrus or charities.

Waguespack is not a supporter of Nugent’s ordinance.

“We’ve been working on a more aggressive ordinance for several years, and we feel this does not go nearly far enough,” said Anne Emerson, Waguespack’s chief of staff. “The goal here is to go harder after a problem that is so big and so bad that we’re never going to completely fix it — it’s more a question of how much damage control we can do.”

She added that Waguespack’s office has been negotiating for months with environmental groups, disability rights groups like Access Living and restaurant industry representatives to reach a palatable middle ground — including by introducing an amended ordinance in July that “dialed it way, way back.” The newer version limited the Styrofoam ban to large restaurants, among other tweaks.

But the powerful Illinois Restaurant Association pushed for more concessions — and responded warmly to the exemptions included in Nugent’s proposal.

The association “had previously been in communication with the sponsors of the upon-request ordinance about the need to include business-friendly provisions in the legislation,” restaurant association president Sam Toia wrote in a statement on Friday. “We appreciate that the ordinance now includes several pragmatic changes that take into account the operational realities of running a restaurant — including the need for single use foodware for safety concerns, drive-thrus, self-serve areas, and more.”

Nugent did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.

Separately on Monday, the City Council Committee on License is scheduled to meet at 2 p.m. Monday to consider seven items related to local moratoria on liquor sales or shared housing rentals.

Get more in-depth, daily coverage of Chicago politics at The Daily Line.