Why state parks will stop offering plastic flatware and cups

Starting next year, you can still bring plastic spoons and cups into state parks — but they won't be offered.

The change is part of a bill Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law earlier this month. Starting Jan. 1, 2023, state agencies and departments will be prohibited from procuring single-use plastic disposable foodware at state parks and natural areas.

Instead, vendors at these locations will have to offer either recyclable or compostable foodware. The legislation will affect Illinois' 184 state parks and natural areas, which collectively host millions of visitors each year, according to the state Department of Natural Resources website.

“This is a modest attempt to begin to show that the state of Illinois, as a purchaser of products, is going to prefer compostable products,” said state Sen. Julie Morrison, a Lake Forest Democrat who sponsored the bill. “It's really important that we get plastics out of our landfills and out of our whole use chain. We can do this.”

The legislation will primarily affect state park vendors, such as concession stands. The Department of Natural Resources has food service contracts with 63 vendors at state parks including Starved Rock, Giant City and Moraine Hills.

The law gives businesses some time to make the change, applying to contracts that renew on or after Jan. 1, 2024.

“Cutting down on plastics waste is compatible with IDNR's mission to conserve and protect nature, and this law gives us an opportunity to educate the public about the harmful effects of single-use plastics on the environment,” department spokesperson Jayette Bolinski said in a statement.

More than 90% of the plastic used in Illinois ends up in landfills for various, complex reasons — one of them is the sheer amount of plastic that is not recyclable. Single-use plastics like cutlery, cups and Styrofoam take-away containers are largely not recyclable and have contributed to littering issues at state parks and natural areas.

Jacob Shurpit, the site superintendent at Moraine Hills State Park in McHenry County, said the park has one concession stand at the McHenry Dam, but it currently offers little to no single-use plastic.

Rather, the main source of plastic litter at the park is large picnic groups who carry in plastic bottles and cutlery, Shurpit said. The park will continue to work on recycling education, but it has had little success in getting visitors to separate their waste properly.

“It's almost 50/50 on whether or not we can actually do a recycling program, simply because of the fact that we have so many people that don't acknowledge the recycling process,” he said.

Shurpit also oversees Volo Bog State Natural Area, where his team has seen a sharp decrease in litter by implementing a “carry in, carry out” policy. The difference has been “day and night,” he said.

“A large part of the problem with any of the state parks or state natural areas is even when people put stuff in the garbage cans, if we can't get out there to empty those quickly enough, animals usually get into the cans and they scatter trash,” he said. “That stuff ends up blowing through the areas.”

Shurpit and his team are considering implementing “carry in, carry out” at Moraine Hills, but with about a million visitors a year and frequent, large events, it would be much more difficult to implement.

Jen Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council, said that though the new law is just one step forward, it's an important one.

“It's definitely not enough. It's not the end, but I think it's a pilot in the most sensitive areas,” Walling said. “Our state parks are where we really don't want plastic litter, where we're seeing a lot of plastic litter, and so it's the place where we most need to take action.”

Walling added that she's visited many parks that do need to cut down on single-use plastics, and she hopes park visitors will be inspired to minimize their own plastic waste.

Looking ahead to Illinois' next legislative session, Walling is anticipating plastic-related issues to be more prominent, with the introduction of bills including bans on Styrofoam and plastic bags, and an extended producer responsibility bill, or an EPR.

EPRs put the responsibility for any materials on manufacturers, meaning producers would take on the operational responsibility to manage recycling programs or the financial responsibility to pay for existing programs.

“Recycling and single-use plastic reduction is going to be really big this next year and in the coming years,” Walling said. “If we want to make a difference on this, we're really going to have to come up with the strongest solution that works for as many parties as possible.”

• Jenny Whidden is a Report For America corps member covering climate change and the environment for the Daily Herald. To help support her work, click here to make a tax-deductible donation.

Beginning in 2023, facilities at state parks and recreation areas, such as the Starved Rock Lodge & Conference Center's dining area at Starved Rock State Park in Utica, will be prohibited from offering single-use plastic products. Courtesy of Illinois Office of Tourism
Fish Tales Concessions at the McHenry Dam, the only concession stand at Moraine Hills State Park, currently offers little to no single-use plastic. Courtesy of Fish Tales Concessions
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