Last week the Oak Park Village Board voted 6-1 in favor of a single-use plastics ordinance; I was the single opposing vote. The ordinance included two parts: “Foodware by request only, effective June 1st 2023” and “Styrofoam ban, effective Jan 1st 2024.” Some exceptions apply, for example:

•      Straws, pre-packaged items and safety lids are excluded from the plastic foodware ban.

•      Schools, health-care facilities, and nonprofits are exempt.

•      Supplies and services during a declared emergency.

•      For businesses with an annual revenue of less than $500,000, the Styrofoam ban and enforcement takes effect only by Jan. 1, 2025. (Most local restaurants are above this threshold.)

I have championed the cause of sustainability in our community and beyond for well over a decade. I was involved with efforts to reduce single-use plastics when I was with the Oak Park Energy and Environment Commission in 2019-2020. As trustee, I recommended inclusion of the Styrofoam ban as part of this ordinance when it first came to the board in 2022. In April 2023, I was part of a small group that unsuccessfully lobbied Senator Don Harmon for a statewide ban of Styrofoam.

So then, why did I vote against this ordinance? Two reasons:

•      We are a board that claims to care about community engagement. The village’s community engagement on this topic was predicated on the Styrofoam ban and enforcement taking effect starting Jan. 1, 2025. When we asked the community about this ban, the timing of the ban and its enforcement were an integral part of the equation. To move that up by a full year to Jan. 1, 2024 not only invalidates the results of the engagement, but simultaneously wastes taxpayer dollars and staff time on community engagement. The board decided to ignore community engagement while claiming it to be a priority. That undermines our credibility.

•      Our local restaurants are supportive of this ban, and are already willingly working toward this goal. I know because, through Takeout 25 (the nonprofit I founded), we are working with restaurant owners to build Illinois’ first Green Dining Hub here in Oak Park. In the Takeout 25 restaurant owners’ meet-up in April, we prioritized action on sustainable packaging and composting and are executing that priority.

A premature punitive enforcement action can only harm the collaborative and positive mindset with which the local restaurant community is approaching this problem. Some restaurants have already made the transition to sustainable packaging; some will be ready by January 2024; but the most vulnerable may need a little more time. These are low-margin businesses, serving our neighbors who can least afford to pay higher prices. Let’s not use a stick where a carrot would be a better enabler. Let’s not whip the willing.

If we instituted the ban in 2024 but delayed the enforcement to 2025, we could have maintained the integrity of our community engagement process while leading other communities on this topic and bringing more people along willingly. We could have managed this transition at a lower cost to local businesses and residents alike.

For these reasons, I had to vote against a ban that I care deeply about, a topic that I have championed for years. I don’t take my votes at the board table lightly and I try to prepare my best on every topic that comes before the board and then vote my conscience in the best interest of this community.

It’s not always easy, but I’m proud of every vote I’ve cast, including this one.

Ravi Parakkat is an Oak Park village trustee.

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