Oak Park has joined a worldwide movement to encourage citizens and local restaurants to reduce their impact on the environment by giving up single-use plastics during July. 

The Plastic Free July Challenge is intended to raise awareness and initiate individual actions. While this is the first time Oak Park has participated in the campaign, the village has been working to reduce the use of plastics in the village.

The Environment and Energy Commission (EEC) received a challenge from Village Trustee Deno Andrews in May 2018 when he asked the commission look into the impact of plastic straws in the village of Oak Park. Initial analysis revealed groups like Interfaith Green Network and League of Women Voters were already engaged on the topic. 

“We have a shared goal of eliminating all single-use plastics in the village,” said Beverly Graham, League of Women Voters of Oak Park-River Forest president, of her group’s relationship with the EEC. “As a rule, our organization supports all efforts to combat global warming and curtail the dumping of plastics in the ocean.”

Inspired by the Shedd Aquarium’s, Shedd the Straw program, Graham joined Marsha Borders, the League’s Environment Committee co-chair, and made it a goal to eliminate not just plastic straws in the village, but all single-use plastics, including packaging, cups, and utensils.

In addition to visiting restaurants throughout the village to help drive home the importance of eliminating single-use plastics in the village, the committee utilized the Chamber of Commerce Bite Nite event to get the word out about their efforts. Eventually their committee caught the attention of Stephen Morales, Environment and Energy Commission chair, in Oak Park.

“Our community is already very engaged in preserving the environment, and the Plastic Free July campaign is a great way to educate both the public and restaurants on what individuals can do to reduce waste,” said Morales.

As part of the Plastic Free July campaign the League’s Environment Committee contacted approximately 100 local restaurants asking them about their use of disposable plastics. The committee learned several had already made the switch to compostable materials, but most were still using plastic.  

While it is a shared goal to have all restaurants in the area move in a green direction, Graham and Morales are aware of the unique challenges going green presents for restaurants. Their hope is sharing the list of restaurants already embracing green practices will inspire other restaurants to make similar changes.

The Heritage in Forest Park was named among the best of the best in anticipation of Plastic Free July. General Manager Salvador Lozano-Alvarado points out that The  Heritage uses biodegradable, take-home boxes, and never includes plastic forks/knives with leftovers being carried out. In addition, Chef Rick Ohlemacher incorporates a minimal-waste practice in the kitchen, utilizing almost 100 percent of proteins when he’s butchering them and using seasonal produce from Illinois farms to decrease the carbon footprint of the restaurant. The Heritage also pays for recycling, which many restaurants opt out of.

“From chef to ownership, The Heritage considers care for the environment a virtue for a successful business and for a sustainable food future,” said Lozano-Alvarado.  

Village staff will be doing outreach to restaurants to drive participation in Plastic Free July. The program is voluntary for both restaurants and residents. While there is no penalty for non-participation, the village intends to follow up with restaurants and villagers about the program for feedback. If the response to the campaign is positive, the EEC will suggest a more permanent plan to the village board to limit plastic use.

“The EEC has been fortunate to have great partners in the Interfaith Green Network and the League of Women Voters to inform our focus,” said Morales, “and limiting single-use plastics is a way that government can respond to the global and local calls for action.”

For more information, visit www.oak-park.us/your-government/environmental-initiatives/plastic-free-july or make an individual pledge at https://www.plasticfreejuly.org.