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Shedd Aquarium Launches New Program to Aid Restaurants in Cutting Plastic Use to Reverse Pandemic-Induced Proliferation

New “Let’s Shedd Plastic” Program Empowers Restaurants to Be Part of the Plastic Pollution Solution

February 25, 2021

Two rockhopper penguins inspect a mug filled with fish.

According to recent analyses of global plastic use and management, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on plastic consumption and demand, escalating to an increase of 40% in packaging and 17% in other applications. Compounding an already dire plastic pollution crisis and contradicting pre-pandemic efforts to turn toward more sustainable alternatives, Shedd Aquarium wants to help reverse this trend through a new resource program for Chicago-area restaurants, dubbed “Let’s Shedd Plastic.”

Launching this week, the initiative provides support and resources to restaurants that will allow them to take realistic, measurable steps towards a commitment to cut back on disposable plastic use and transition to more eco-friendly alternatives to plastic in their business operations.

Stepping out as early adopters, restaurant group Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises and five other Chicago-area restaurants have already joined the program as collaborators in its first days. In addition to Lettuce’s 120+ restaurants, such as Beatrix Restaurants and RPM Restaurants in Chicago, Majani (South Shore, Chicago), One Lake Brewing (Oak Park), Wild Onion Brewery (Lake Barrington), Wild Onion Tied House (Oak Park) and Steak 48 (River North, Chicago) have also signed-on. The aquarium aims to recruit restaurant collaborators from each of Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods and throughout the surrounding suburbs in the program’s first year.

“As a company, we strive to be more sustainable, and maintain happy customers at the same time—this can be challenging, as we’ve seen with the shift to paper straws. It’s important to educate, so that customers share the responsibility to be more environmentally conscious,” said Jennifer Kainz, marketing director of Wild Onion Brewery and Wild Onion Tied House. “Eliminating single-use plastic is a great first step and implementing an opt-in option for carryout plastic cutlery, for example, gives the customer a choice. The problem is more complex than just banning plastics, as every type of packaging has an environmental impact. Compostable bowls and cups, for example, are not widely accepted at composting facilities and end up in landfills despite the premium cost to restaurants. Increasing education and awareness is key, so we can come up with broader solutions together.”

Kainz added that the pandemic has highlighted some of the challenges restaurants face as an industry, saying, “We have been forced to take backward steps, as far as the use of plastics. Relying solely on carryout business has amplified the need for a reusable model. We hope this initiative will move us closer to that.”

“Through our work at Shedd Aquarium, we know that a catastrophic amount of plastic pollution winds up in our rivers, lakes and oceans and can have devastating impacts on aquatic animals,”

Jaclyn Wegner, director of conservation action at Shedd Aquarium

To join the program, restaurants must make a commitment to evaluate their plastic use and seek sustainable alternatives where possible. Restaurants can choose to take action in several ways, such as offering to-go cutlery by request only, implementing an annual audit and reassessment of plastic use, swapping select single-use plastics for reusable alternatives, and more. The aquarium’s in-house plastic reduction experts will provide support, resources and training for the industry, as well as avenues for restaurants to advocate collectively for better alternatives and policies to move away from disposable plastic. Shedd will also provide tools for restaurants to publicly celebrate their plastic-reduction commitment with their customers to spread awareness.

“Through our work at Shedd Aquarium, we know that a catastrophic amount of plastic pollution winds up in our rivers, lakes and oceans and can have devastating impacts on aquatic animals, such as fish and waterfowl, not to mention us humans,” said Jaclyn Wegner, director of conservation action at Shedd Aquarium. “Restaurants are important cornerstones and leaders in our communities, and we are eager to work with them to tackle plastic pollution. Substituting disposable plastics with more sustainable options in their operations can be a win-win for their bottom line and for the planet.”

In addition to receiving resources and support, restaurants cutting back on plastic can help with cost-savings. For example, an increase in to-go orders during the pandemic has meant that restaurants have increased the amount of disposable cutlery they purchase and provide to patrons; a shift to only providing compostable cutlery on request can reduce plastic waste and help the bottom line. Restaurants that invest in reusable items for onsite dining, such as cutlery, cups and plates, can reduce costs long-term, while also helping overburdened and underfinanced local municipal waste and recycling systems.

Further, restaurants stand to gain new customers drawn to businesses that do social good, as research shows that 87% of consumers will spend money on products and services offered by companies that advocated for an issue they cared about, and 73% of global consumers say they would “definitely” or “probably” change their consumption habits to reduce their impact on the environment. What’s more, 63% of Americans are hopeful businesses will take the lead to drive social and environmental change, and nearly 9 in 10 Americans (86%) expect companies to do more than just make money.

Restaurants that join the program are also proactively achieving plastic reduction requirements that are a part of a proposed federal policy called the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act, which is co-sponsored by Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, as well as supporting similar efforts underway in the City of Chicago and State of Illinois. Each piece of legislation aims to address the growing plastic pollution problem that has been documented in local freshwater systems, as well as the ocean.

Plastic pollution snapshot:

  • Every year, an estimated 22 million pounds of plastic enters the Great Lakes.
  • Half of that enters Lake Michigan alone.
  • Not only is plastic pollution littering the environment a major concern, but the production of plastic itself is also a major health threat for front-line human communities and wildlife that live near factories. These factories negatively impact air quality and contribute to climate change.
  • Data collected by beach clean-up volunteers across the Great Lakes region shows that roughly one-third of all items collected are food-related.
  • Once in the ecosystem, plastic does not simply go away, but slowly breaks down into smaller pieces and threatens the lives of animals that may ingest or become entangled in it.
  • It has been found in Great Lakes fishes, beer and even drinking water, indicating plastic pollution is not just an environmental health issue, but also a matter of public health.

For Majani, a vegan restaurant already committed to offering “green cuisine,” cutting back on plastic is part of the South Shore restaurant’s vision.

“Majani is committed to being as sustainable as possible and our next goal is to become plastic free,” said Tsadakeeyah Emmanuel, co-owner of Majani. “One of our symbols means journey; our journey has been green cuisine as well as being environmentally responsible. Our next phase of that journey is removing all plastics.

Similarly, R.J. Melman, president of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, stated, “Lettuce Entertain You is proud to be partnering with the Shedd Aquarium on the “Let's Shedd Plastic" initiative. We are committed to this first step toward a more sustainable future for our industry.

The program is supported, in part, by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Marine Debris Program.

Restaurants interested in learning more about the Let’s Shedd Plastic program can visit

VISUALS: High resolution photos to accompany the list are available for download: credit: ©Shedd Aquarium