Advocates Introduce Chicago City Ordinance to Combat Plastic Pollution

Aldermen, environmental groups, and consumer advocates bring the fight for plastic-free water to the Chicago City Council

CHICAGO –Today, Alderman Scott Waguespack (32nd Ward) announced the introduction of comprehensive legislation tackling the pervasive problem of plastic pollution in Chicago waterways and the Great Lakes. Alderman Waguespack was joined by organizations in support of the ordinance including the Illinois Environmental Council, Shedd Aquarium, Field Museum, Alliance for the Great Lakes, Chicago Recycling Coalition, Illinois PIRG, and Friends of the Chicago River.  If enacted, Chicago will lead the Great Lakes region in reducing single-use plastic, eliminating dangerous polystyrene and protecting public health.

“I am proud to introduce this important and timely ordinance today. It is essential that we address the crisis of plastic pollution in our waters and beyond. I urge my colleagues on the City Council to join me and support access to clean water for all Chicagoans,” said Alderman Waguespack. “All of the research points to the grave risk of plastic pollution in our waterways, it is time to effect meaningful change and protect our resources and communities.”

The ‘Plastic-Free Water Ordinance’ will reduce plastic pollution by eliminating significant sources of single-use plastic in Chicago, advancing sustainable solutions to keep drinking water clean and ecosystems healthy.  Thanks to the guidance and expertise of Access Living and advocates for those with disabilities, this ordinance will preserve the access to needed serviceware, including plastic straws, for all individuals.

This ordinance tackles the plastic pollution crisis by:

  • requiring reusable plates and dishes when dining in at restaurants,
  • allowing consumers to bring their own cups,
  • requiring single-use plastic serviceware be provided only by request or at a self-serve station,
  • requiring recyclable or compostable containers for to-go food,
  • reducing polystyrene, and
  • educating the public about improved recycling and composting practices.

“Clean water is a basic human need, which is why we’re taking this fight for plastic-free water to the City Council,” said Jen Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council. “Ordinances that aim to reduce single-use plastics have been successful in other communities, and it’s time for the city of Chicago to step up and lead the Great Lakes region in reducing harmful plastic pollution in our communities.”

Plastic pollution is a global problem plaguing waterways locally. Regionally, nearly 22 million pounds of plastic enter our Great Lakes waterways each year, contaminating the source of drinking water for millions of Chicagoans and ecosystems for millions of wildlife. In 2019 in the Chicago area alone, nearly 6,000 Adopt-a-Beach volunteers cleaned up 14,549 pounds of litter at 222 cleanup events on Chicago beaches. Roughly 80% of that litter cleaned up was made up entirely or partly of plastic. On the Chicago River, half of the litter collected was food-related and single-use, according to a survey conducted by Friends of the Chicago River. 

“At the Field Museum, we’ve seen the success of these plastic reduction strategies firsthand,” said Carter O’Brien, sustainability officer at the Field Museum. “In 2013, we began a program focused on waste reduction similar to the provisions included in this ordinance, and our restaurants began diverting 75% of their waste away from landfills. We doubled the Museum’s overall waste diversion rate from 18% to 36% in just one year, and our waste diversion rate now exceeds 60%.”

Safeguarding the Great Lakes region’s wildlife and economies requires action on single-use plastic at the city level. As the largest freshwater ecosystem on Earth, the Great Lakes are home to more than 3,500 plant and animal species, like the bald eagle, gray wolf, lake sturgeon, wood duck and American bullfrog.

“Nearly all species on Earth are threatened by plastic pollution, humans included,” said Andrea Densham, senior director of policy at Shedd Aquarium.  “Nothing we use for a few minutes should be allowed to pollute our waterways and impact the health and wellbeing of humans and wildlife for centuries. Today, we’re linking arms with local leaders to be proactive and protect the aquatic world in our backyard.”

“Our Adopt-a-Beach volunteers are at the front lines of the effort to keep plastic pollution out of the Great Lakes. And while volunteers pick up tens of thousands of pounds of litter each year, most of it plastic, beach clean ups alone will not solve the Great Lakes plastic pollution problem. This ordinance enables us to reduce plastic pollution by tackling the problem right at the source,” said Joel Brammeier, president & CEO of the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

Plastics in our rivers, lakes and drinking water do not decompose, but instead, break into smaller and smaller pieces called microplastics that are often mistaken as food by wildlife and are found in our drinking water. As a result, both wildlife and humans are consuming fragments of plastic at alarming rates, and recent studies show the average human may intake as much as 5 grams of plastic each week.

“We now know that we are all eating, drinking and breathing microplastics everyday. Though we don’t yet fully know the health risks that will result, do we want to continue stacking the odds against our children’s health? The Chicago Recycling Coalition supports this positive step by Alderman Waguespack to protect public health and Chicago’s environmental and economic well-being,” said Michelle Thoma-Culver, president of the Chicago Recycling Coalition.

“We can not recycle our way out of our plastic pollution problem. We have alternatives to single use plastics, and it’s time to use them,” said Paloma Paez-Coombe, citizen outreach director for Illinois PIRG.

Wildlife and clean water are critical to the Great Lakes outdoor economy, supporting a $7 billion fishery, $16 billion tourism industry and over 1.6 million jobs within the region.

“The Chicago River has improved tremendously in recent years but litter remains a stubborn, though solvable, problem,” said Margaret Frisbie, executive director of Friends of the Chicago River. “Litter not only affects water quality but wildlife as well, with studies showing that more than 93% of fish examined from the Chicago area have some form of plastic present inside them. Our own analysis through our Litter Free Chicago River initiative reveals that the bulk of the garbage in the river is related to food packaging. Friends of the Chicago River supports this package of proposals which will help advance our call for zero tolerance of litter in the system.”

For more information on plastic pollution and its threat to Chicago waterways, click here or here.

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About Shedd Aquarium 

The John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago sparks compassion, curiosity and conservation for the aquatic animal world. Home to 32,000 aquatic animals representing 1,500 species of fishes, reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates, birds and mammals from waters around the globe, Shedd is a recognized leader in animal care, conservation education and research. An accredited member of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA), Shedd is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institute, and supported by the people of Chicago, the State of Illinois and the Chicago Park District.  

About IEC

Founded in 1975, the Illinois Environmental Council (IEC) protects the Illinois environment by creating and advocating for sound environmental laws and policies. IEC represents over 90 environmental and community organizations and more than 300 individuals from throughout Illinois. Visit for more information about IEC.

About Alliance for the Great Lakes

The Alliance for the Great Lakes is a nonpartisan nonprofit organization working across the region to protect our most precious resource: the fresh, clean and natural waters of the Great Lakes. Learn more at

About the Chicago Recycling Coalition

For over thirty years, the Chicago Recycling Coalition has been championing  environmentally and fiscally sound management of solid waste through research, education, and advocacy, emphasizing waste reduction, reuse, recycling, composting, and buying recycled. Learn more about the Chicago Recycling Coalition at

About Friends of the Chicago River

Friends of the Chicago River was founded in 1979 to improve and protect the 156 mile Chicago River system for people, plants, and animals. With over 16,000 members, volunteers, and online advocates, Friends is the only organization solely dedicated to the river’s health.

About the Field Museum

The Field Museum fuels a journey of discovery across time to enable solutions for a brighter future rich in nature and culture.

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