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CPS phasing out Styrofoam food trays


Within 24 months, Chicago Public Schools students will be carrying their breakfasts and lunches on an “affordable alternative” to Styrofoam food trays at a cost reduced by pooling the purchasing power of six cities, aldermen were told Monday.

Leslie Fowler, CPS director of nutrition support services, disclosed the environmental sea change at a Finance Committee meeting where aldermen took testimony, but no action, on a proposal to ban Styrofoam and other polystyrene food containers.

Finance Chairman Edward Burke (14th) introduced the ban last month, noting that more than 250,000 CPS students use Styrofoam food trays every day.

That clogs Chicago landfills with 35 million lunch trays thrown away every year, but apparently not for long.

Fowler disclosed Monday that the Chicago Board of Education has “joined forces with our counterparts” in five other cities to “leverage our purchasing power by identifying … a manufacturer to provide biodegradable food service products at a similar cost to the products we currently use.”

New York City is managing the request for proposals, which should wrap up in 18 to 24 months.

“At the end of the procurement process, public schools in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Orlando, Miami and Dallas will have an affordable alternative to polystyrene food service products and we will be able to achieve the goals of this proposed ordinance,” Fowler said, referring to the ban.

Fowler noted that some of the alternatives available to CPS carry a price tag ranging from 14 to 16 cents a tray. Styrofoam trays cost about 4 cents a tray.

“That difference is about $3.5 million a year for us. The solution that we’re pursuing currently would actually be a lower cost to us than the Styrofoam we currently use,” she said, without displaying or even describing the product.

Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) said he’s pleased CPS is joining forces with five other cities to “buy in such bulk quantity they can capture that much lower” price.

“It is a smart approach in government. My concern is that many independent restaurateurs and small mom-and-pop operations won’t have the benefit of that aggregated purchasing power,” Reilly said.

Tanya Triche, vice-president and general counsel at the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, noted that alternatives are “two to four times more expensive” than Styrofoam. “We all know what the economy is like. Please don’t increase the cost of doing business in small business,” she said.

Burke was not deterred by the warning about small business costs.

“That’s what you generally hear from the opponents — that’s it’s too expensive. But if other cities can do it, I don’t see why Chicago can’t do it,” Burke said.

A San-Francisco-style ban on plastic bags remains stalled in the City Council amid warnings it’s tantamount to a “tax on retailers” that could stifle Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s efforts to fill Chicago’s food deserts with new grocery stores.

Paper bags cost three times as much as plastic bags.

Emanuel has been noncommital about the Styrofoam ban.

Burke’s ordinance would make it a crime — punishable by license and permit revocation and fines ranging from $300 to $500 a day — to sell or offer for sale polystyrene loose fill packaging” in Chicago.

The only exceptions would be “pre-packaged foods packaged outside” Chicago and “food service ware” used after the Commissioner of Business Affairs and Consumer Protections determines there is “no alternative that is both affordable and compostable.”

 Fran Spielman, Chicago Sun-Times


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