A proposed ordinance would allow Chicago restaurants to keep handing out plastic utensils, but only if asked. | Sun-Times photo

Chicago restaurants could still hand out plastic silverware other single-use items, but only if asked. The ordinance is more narrow than a ban championed by Ald. Scott Waguespack — and compliance is voluntary, with no fines.

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 expected to advance Monday.

The City Council’s Health and Environmental Protection Committee is poised to take 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.

“I have restaurant owners calling me all the time about the mask mandate. They’re afraid now that Business Affairs will just have more reasons to come in and inspect their places. 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.”

Toia applauded Cardenas and Nugent for including what he called “pragmatic” and “business-friendly” provisions that “take into account the operational realities” of running a restaurant.

Cardenas said he steered clear of fines to ease the burden on restaurant owners struggling to staff up and recoup “huge” pandemic losses.

“Small businesses have faced hardship over the last year and a half and now is not the time to burden them further financially with an outright ban or intense violation fees,” Cardenas wrote in a text message to the Sun-Times.

“Instead, they can potentially save money by seeing a decrease in plastics/single use consumption from their customers. Fewer plastic utensils requested is fewer goods businesses will have to regularly invest in.”

Waguespack could not be reached for comment. But on the day the watered-down alternative was introduced, Waguespack told the Sun-Times he had no problem with the go-slow approach.

“There were people asking me to come back and push my ordinance. And I had mentioned that, at this moment, it wouldn’t be helpful to restaurants to have that full package. But I’m fine with them taking this step. My whole purpose is to kind of line us up with other cities around the world. This would kind of move us in that direction,” Waguespack said.

“The package that I put together was a much broader environmental piece. But this is fine with me. If the restaurant association is behind it, I’m wholeheartedly with them. It saves them money and it takes this stuff out of the bags that every one of us gets when we order” carryout.

Waguespack also noted then that in Asia, many consumers must pay 5 or 10 cents for condiments and plastic ware.

Restaurants there “save tons of money that could go right back into the business if they do it that way — whether they charge, or don’t even put it in there.”

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