Oregon News

Polystyrene container ban heads to governor

By PETER WONG
Oregon Capital Bureau

Single-use polystyrene food containers would be a thing of the past under legislation that the Oregon House sent to Gov. Tina Kotek.

Such containers would be phased out by 2025 under Senate Bill 543, which the House passed Wednesday, April 26, on a 40-18 vote. Minutes later, the House gave final legislative approval (39-17) for a companion, Senate Bill 545, which empowers the Oregon Health Authority to write rules allowing restaurants to fill consumer-owned containers with food.

Kotek is expected to sign both bills, whose chief sponsor is Sen. Janeen Sollman, a Democrat from Hillsboro who has been working on the legislation with others for four years.

“This is something Oregonians have asked for to make sure we are reducing the waste we are consuming,” Sollman said in a brief interview last week after both bills had been cleared by the House Committee on Climate, Energy and Environment. Sollman leads the counterpart committee in the Senate.

Sollman also was a sponsor of broader 2021 legislation that will require plastics manufacturers to pay part of the cost of recycling consumer packaging — or find ways to reduce or reuse that material. Oregon and Maine are the first states to pass such legislation, and U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley based his national legislation on them.

“My focus has always been on reduce and reuse, and then recycling,” Sollman said. “Oregonians want to do the right thing, and that is why they are excited about the work under (the 2021 legislation) to help modernize and inform them. This bill fits into that, because it’s about reducing the waste. There are plenty of healthy alternatives out there.”

The 2021 law was the first major upgrade since 1983, when Oregon passed its first statewide recycling law, aside from the 1971 “bottle bill” that requires refundable deposits on beverage containers.

Sollman said earlier that Oregon recovers about 14% of its plastic waste from landfills or incinerators, far short of a goal of 25%.

Senate Bill 543 also sets up a work group to manage the transition until the law takes effect on Jan. 1, 2025, when Oregon will join eight other states — including Washington — and Washington, D.C., with similar bans. Nine Oregon cities already have such bans, including Portland — which did so in 1990 — and Milwaukie.

Violations are punishable by fines of $100 each for food vendors and $500 for those selling polystyrene containers.

The bill also would ban the use in containers of perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), known as “forever chemicals,” that are used in foodware for grease- and water-proofing. These chemicals can accumulate in the environment and are linked to cancer, immune system suppression, and reproductive problems. PFAS has been found in the blood of almost all Americans tested, as well as in breast milk, umbilical-cord blood of newborns, and even polar bears in the Arctic.

The ban does not apply to coolers intended for reuse, or to containers for unprepared foods.

Rep. Maxine Dexter, a Democrat from Northwest Portland and a physician, is one of two House chief sponsors of Sollman’s two bills.

“Whether along a river, a highway or our beautiful beaches, single-use plastics are the predominant waste we clean up,” Dexter said. “It’s ugly and it’s doing harm. Each of us cares about Oregon, and we take pride in our beautiful state. It’s time for us to prioritize our state over convenience.”

Several environmental groups backed the legislation because polystyrene decomposes slowly and lingers in the environment. Among them were Environment Oregon, Oceana, Ocean Conservancy and Surfrider Foundation.

Rep. Virgle Osborne, R-Roseburg, voted for both bills although he voted against the polystyrene ban in committee. He questioned the estimates of plastic wastes on Oregon’s coastline.

“I never really heard facts,” he said. “I do think if we make laws, they ought to be based on facts.”

All the votes against both bills were cast by Republicans.

When he was a Salem city councilor, Democratic Rep. Tom Andersen said he sought to promote alternatives to single-use polystyrene containers — but with mixed success. He was the other chief House sponsor of both bills.

“Many in this Legislature have heard from constituents who want the opportunity to reduce their consumption of single-use plastics by taking their own containers to restaurants, rather than having to grab a new plastic bag or tub furnished by the restaurant,” he said.

“We have heard from businesses frustrated by rules that restrict their ability to safely establish reuse-and-refill systems by their customers.”

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