Dennis Murphy of Poor Phil's shows a variety of compostable food packaging alternatives to Paul Zimmermann and other Oak Park Business Association Council attendees (Photo credit: Anne Pezalla)

McDonald’s Corporation shareholders voted down a referendum to reevaluate the use of plastic drinking straws.  This illustrates two points. First, straws are top-of-mind for many environmental activists, aiming to eliminate something that is difficult to recycle and creating environmental hazards for marine life.  Second, McDonald’s decision to wait indicates that an easy solution isn’t so simple.

Unless of course you don’t take a straw and go without, should you be able to do so.  But even that calls for the restaurant to stop automatically providing them.

The Oak Park and River Forest business community is struggling with the issue.  Our local business owners are pretty progressive and eager to do what is right for the environment as well as their customers.   Some customers need straws to enjoy beverages and we need to be respectful and inclusive. Cost is certainly an issue, as compostable, bendable single-use straws are expensive – and most break down in hot liquids. Reusable straws are difficult to clean.

The McDonald’s decision is disappointing because they have tremendous power and leverage.  If McDonald’s wanted to solve this today, their straw suppliers would solve it for them. Small businesses would benefit as fast-followers.

Fortunately, small business owners are a tenacious bunch, and nowhere more so than here.  Credit our restaurateurs themselves for taking the lead. Buzz, Poor Phil’s, Oak Park Brewing – just to name a few – have been researching green options for months.  Whether they are making straws optional, using compostable or moving to bamboo, they are responding.

The indefatigable Anne Pezalla of Lively Athletics is on it as well.  Part entrepreneur, part social media maven, Anne is proposing a #strawfreein3 campaign to set a goal that we figure this out locally within three years.  She suggests clear steps: provide straws on demand only in year 1, offer sustainable alternative in year 2 and have on-site composting by year 3 with incentives for restaurants who comply.  

Her idea is resonating with residents and businesses as well as the Illinois Ocean Coalition, which is working with the Shedd Aquarium on similar projects.  More to come on this.

In the meantime, if you don’t need a straw, tell your server.

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Cathy Yen

Cathy Yen is the Executive Director of the Oak Park River Forest Chamber of Commerce.  She has lived in Oak Park for 21 years and done business locally, first as a retailer and then as a small business...