Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Friday January 10th, 2014, 5:43pm

A Look At the Proposal To Ban Plastic Foam Food Containers In Chicago (UPDATED)

   Chicago Alds. George Cardenas (12th) and Ed Burke (14th) want to ban the use of Styrofoam and other polystyrene food service products in the city. 

The two aldermen introduced an ordinance at a Chicago City Council meeting last month that would outlaw the plastic foam food containers in an effort to encourage the use of biodegradable or recycled products and to trim the costs associated with the disposing of polystyrene materials.

The proposed ordinance states that "toxic chemicals leach out of such products into the food that they contain and threaten human health."

“These products never degrade. They’re being dumped into landfills ... Some restaurants and chains have voluntarily gone to paper," Burke told the Chicago Sun-Times. "The time has come to put this question back on the front-burner and put some pressure on the people who are distributing this material all across our city. It’s expensive. It’s dirty. It’s annoying and it ought to stop."

“If McDonald’s can go to paper, why can’t these other chains,” the alderman asked.

Burke also tried to ban the non eco-friendly food containers in Chicago back in February 2010, but that attempt flatlined.

More than 100 U.S. cities already have Styrofoam or polystyrene-related bans in place, many of them on the West Coast. In recent months months, New York City has also been debating the issue. In Illinois, Highland Park officials considered banning plastic foam food products in 2010, but ultimately decided to first try out a polystyrene recycling program, which launched in 2011.

According to a release from Burke's office, more than 250,000 Chicago Public Schools (CPS) students, for example, use Styrofoam lunch trays daily, with 35 million of them being thrown out each year.

Lisa Nikodem, campaign director for Environment Illinois, noted that Styrofoam has been polluting the environment for decades, and "it's time to move on."

"It doesn't biodegrade, but instead breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces making it impossible for wildlife to avoid," she told Progress Illinois. "Not only that, but styrene, a chemical in polystyrene, has been dubbed a possible cancer-causing chemical, or carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer."

"There's no reason why something we use for five minutes should pollute the environment forever," Nikodem continued. "The pollution created by these products is horrible, and the worst part is we may never be able to clean it up."

The pending measure, to be enforced by the city's Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, would also prohibit manufacturers from selling or offering for sale "polystyrene loose fill packaging," also known as packing peanuts. Under the proposed ordinance, violators would face fines ranging from $100 to $300 on the first offense, $300 to $500 on additional offenses and the possibility of having permits, licenses or operation certificates suspended or revoked.

Cafeterias, coffee shops, restaurants and "private and public institutions that routinely serve food" are just some of the places where the use of the foam food containers would be off-limits.

"Prepackaged foods packaged outside" of the city would be exempt, however, as well as specific types of "food service ware," but only if the Commissioner of Business Affairs and Consumer Protections "finds that there is no alternative that is both affordable and compostable," the ordinance reads.

The renewed effort to crackdown on Styrofoam food packaging comes at a time when a long-proposed ban on carryout plastic bags in Chicago remains stuck in committee.

Ald. Joe Moreno (1st) introduced the plastic bag reduction ordinance in November 2011, which looks to ban the bags in stores with more than 5,000 square-feet of retail space. The city council's Committee on Health and Environmental Protection held a hearing on the plastic bag measure last June, but Cardenas, who chairs the committee, did not call it for a vote. The issue has not come up in the city council since, because Mayor Rahm Emanuel has said the current proposal needs some major tweaking.

"There's a lot that has to be worked through and there's not a consensus yet," Emanuel said in late June. "I think that the city council has to work through, and we're going to be working with a number of them, to come up with the right model that makes sure that we, as a city, make the necessary changes. I’m not sure that the proposal out there meets all of that, and I think we have a lot of work yet ahead of us to do that, and do it in a proper way.”

As the Chicago Sun-Times recently pointed out, prohibiting plastic bags in certain establishments may potentially hinder the mayor's push for more grocery stores to set up shop in food deserts. The Illinois Retail Merchants Association (IRMA), which has vehemently opposed a plastic bag ban, has said it's essentially a tax on retailers because paper and biodegradable bags cost more than plastic ones.

Tanya Triche, IRMA's vice president and general counsel, said Burke and Cardenas' proposal would also increase the costs for restaurants and grocers in the city.

"The alternatives to PSF [polystyrene foam] can often be up to three times as much as PSF is now, and so that's a real concern to business owners, be they small businesses or large businesses, that really cuts to their bottom line, and much of that cost, unfortunately, will be passed on to consumers."

Triche went on to say that other food container alternatives on the market, such as plastics, typically cannot be recycled if they have been contaminated with food. Industrial facilities that compost plant-based food ware also often reject the product if it contains food, she explained.

"It doesn't leave you a whole lot of options," she said, adding that polystyrene foam can be recycled if there are appropriate recycling facilities and programs, like the one that's being used in Highland Park in partnership with Dart Container Corp.

 opened the state's first public foam
 recycling facility and 
site in North Aurora in 2009. Dart compacts the foam and 
then ships it to companies that repurpose the material.

Triche said a move away from polystyrene food service products should be a "business-by-business decision."

"In this economy we just don't think that it's sound practice to propose things that are going to increase the costs of small businesses that the mayor's working so hard to try and protect," she stressed.

Emanuel says he plans to “study" the new Styrofoam proposal before taking a position on the matter, adding that “I take our actions as a city on, what I call, overall issues of sustainability seriously."

"We've been debating for 10 years, whether we should close two coal-fired power plants, they're now closed. We've been debating for years whether we should have citywide recycling in every neighborhood, not just in select neighborhoods, we do now," Emanuel stressed.

The measure has been referred to the Finance Committee, which Burke chairs. If the ordinance were to pass in the upcoming months, it would take effect July 1.

UPDATE 1 (1/13/14, 5:22 p.m.): The Chicago Public Schools has announced plans to phase out the use of sytrofoam food trays within 24 months. Click through for more on this development.


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