Restaurateurs react to proposed plastics ban

Local owners give their two cents on how the ban would affect bottom lines

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By Melissa Elsmo

Food Writer

Oak Park is poised to ban single-use plastics and polystyrene foam containers in Oak Park restaurants, after village trustees approved a plan presented by the Environment and Energy Commission on Feb. 10. 

The commission would like to see a law banning single-use plastics to take effect in July.

Highlights of the proposal include defining and subsequently banning all "single-use plastics" from restaurants, taking money from the Sustainability Fund to offer restaurants a one-time $200 incentive to help with conversion costs, orchestrating a "soft implementation" period to help restaurants adjust and introducing noncompliance fines.

"There was no business representation at the hearing and that was unfortunate," said Environment and Energy Commissioner Laura Derks.

Several local restaurant owners had varied reactions and opinions regarding the potential ban. Some were not ready to speak publicly about it. However, most owners were unaware of the proposed ban. All were in favor of green initiatives, but many worried about an ordinance being punitive.

Trattoria 225 owner Bill Quick said he tries to do the right things for the environment and his customers, but thinks village trustees and commissioners do not understand how their decisions impact small businesses -- especially independent restaurants with tight profit margins.

"The idea of a $200 rebate is insulting, really," said Quick, "especially when all the policies that affect restaurants, from liquor licenses to sidewalk fees are always going up in Oak Park."

Trattoria 225 has voluntarily eliminated all Styrofoam from operations and has curbed the use of single-use straws by 80 percent just by asking customers if they would like one. 

The bags the establishment uses for to-go orders, however, cost less than half a cent each; replacing those bags with a paper equivalent would raise the cost per unit to 10 cents or more, said Quick. Carry-out and delivery orders account for approximately 10 percent of Trattoria 225's business.

"This is a tough business in Oak Park," said Quick. "I would like to see the village work with restaurants to help change habits rather than just handing down ordinances that cost us more money without our input."

Derks said she recognizes such an ordinance would represent a "culture shift" for restaurants and patrons. She suggested restaurants "should raise their prices" to ease the burden of added expenses the ordinance may cause eateries.

"The proposed ordinance had broad support on the board," said Derks, "but the board also understands the need for input from restaurants to define the ordinance."

Kettlestrings Tavern co-owner Rob Guenthner chimed in via email saying, "If passed, a proposed plastics ban in Oak Park, while disruptive to historical operating methodologies and impacting operating returns, is an operating challenge that can and will be overcome with innovation and ingenuity. There simply is no other choice because, as a business, we ultimately must deliver what our customers demand and desire."

 Michelle Mascaro of The Happy Apple made eco-conscious choices when building her business and suggested cooperative economics could help restaurants get on board with the ordinance should it pass.

"For places that will be challenged to retrofit their takeout packaging, I can see how it will require rethinking," wrote Mascaro via email. "We are Oak Park, so why not do something creative and different? Food businesses might consider ordering together in bulk to substantially reduce costs. This is a concept to be explored."

The Environment and Energy Commission put a year and a half of research into their recommendation. Derks indicated the commission knows education will be an essential part of implementation but opted to recommend a strong ordinance banning single use plastics, because voluntary efforts were not working effectively to curb their use in restaurants.

Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb, who owns a restaurant in Oak Park, cast the lone vote against drafting the proposed ordinance. He is supportive of an educational program, resolution or proclamation encouraging eco-conscious practices in Oak Park restaurants but does not see how this ordinance could be enforced village wide. He openly questioned who would be responsible for inspecting restaurants' supply purchases.

"We only have one planet and I am the first person to say green choices are the best choices," said Abu-Taleb of the proposed ban, "but I will not support any ordinance that makes restaurant owners intimidated to do business in Oak Park."

Abu Taleb said his own restaurant, Maya Del Sol, is largely compliant with the proposed ban. He noted, however, this type of ordinance would not impact operations at premium casual restaurants in the same way it could potentially impact fast food establishments.

The mayor went on to indicate that Oak Park has more supply than demand when it comes to available restaurant spaces. Abu-Taleb is convinced those vacancies are a result of the high taxes and regulations small businesses face in the village. 

"People who don't have small businesses don't understand what small businesses go through," said Abu-Taleb. "They have changes coming at them all the time from local and non-local agencies and all levels of government."

Restaurants should expect to receive information about the proposed ordinance and a request for feedback from the village in the coming weeks.


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Reader Comments

7 Comments - Add Your Comment

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Comment Policy

Carol Datt Mattar  

Posted: March 2nd, 2020 5:33 PM

Glass containers? Who would carry those to a restaurant?

Colin Taylor  

Posted: February 27th, 2020 3:41 PM

Mayor Abu-Taleb does a great job, but it was inappropriate for him to vote on this matter. He should have recused himself.

Helen Vogel  

Posted: February 26th, 2020 2:53 PM

Most deli departments will put your products in your own containers. But please remember, those containers should not be made of plastic either (or plastic baggies), or you're defeating the whole purpose. Use glass "tupperware" or mason jars. They work very well. One small step at a time.

Carol Datt Mattar  

Posted: February 26th, 2020 1:12 PM

One reason I don't buy deli items at Whole Foods is the paper containers. Food soaks thru them before you get home. I've been in South American countries where you take your own plastic containers to restaurants for leftovers. Works very well. And a friend brings zipper bags to restaurants. Too messy for me.

Tommy McCoy  

Posted: February 25th, 2020 10:25 PM

"We only have one planet and I am the first person to say green choices are the best choices," said Abu-Taleb of the proposed ban, "but I will not support any ordinance that makes restaurant owners intimidated to do business in Oak Park." This sounds good although I think people who eat at restaurants and people who owns restaurants would like to place a little difference in the pocket if it means making the environment better. I was at a restaurant and they served the hamburger in a styroform which then was put in the trash. The hamburger in my opinion is much better than a McDonald's hamburger, although McDonald's which is always working on cost reduction would have served it in a recyclable container. I do not think McDonald's will feel they are being held up against a wall if they wanted to open another restaurant in Oak Park, or do I think they will close a restaurant in Oak Park. Before there was plastic, people were able to still carry out food. By the way if you are interested, Jewel is now selling paper straws. Maybe Oak Park may want to start moving a little faster since it appears that markets are already jumping on the change. As for costs or availability, restaurant suppliers will always make sure to have what their customers want. I use to have a small business and I do understand additional costs and some times you just have to raise the price or accept that you may have to play a bigger part for the greater whole

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: February 25th, 2020 9:05 PM

@ TJ: Very nice.You left out walking home on plastic shoes or tires, using a plastic card to pay, plastic contact lenses or glasses to see the menu. plus the plastic in video game cases and that cell phone. And to think of it, it took The Commission a year and a half to not look at these uses. Sight soon to be seen in Oak Park. A guy in a trench coat at the high school, saying " psst, hey kid, I got the hard stuff, plastic straws, individual ketchup packets, plastic forks, candy with sugar, and cigarettes. Cheap"

Terence Jones  

Posted: February 25th, 2020 4:27 PM

So let me get this straight, I go to the store and buy a pound of sliced ham wrapped in plastic, a loaf of bread in a plastic bag, a gallon of milk in a plastic jug, a Greek salad in a plastic container, a plastic bottle of mustard and a plastic bottle of ketchup, and they won't give me a plastic bag to carry it home because the plastic bag is bad for the environment?

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