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Oregon Senators Shoot Down Ban On Foam Food Containers, Approve Bag Regulations

Robert F. Bukaty

Oregon senators on Tuesday rejected a bill to ban foam food containers statewide, a somewhat surprising rebuke in a year when lawmakers have been willing to regulate other plastic products.

In a 15-14 vote, Democrats failed to marshal support for House Bill 2883. Three Democrats joined with Republicans in denying the bill the 16 votes necessary to pass.

The bill’s failure came not long after senators passed another bill, House Bill 2509, that will prevent grocery stores statewide from using single-use plastic bags. That bill passed in a 17-12 vote. It now moves to the desk of Gov. Kate Brown.

The bills were two of the most impactful bills seeking to limit plastic use considered this legislation session. A third proposal, Senate Bill 90, restricts restaurants and convenience stores from handing out single-use plastic straws unless a customer asks. That bill received final passage in the House earlier this month, and is awaiting a signature from the governor.

Had it passed, HB 2883 would have prevented businesses from serving prepared food in containers made of polystyrene foam, often called Styrofoam. Oregon would have been the first state on the West Coast to take that step. Instead, the bill became the second in as many weeks to die in a tossup vote on the Senate floor.

The bill was aimed at limiting polystyrene foam litter, which advocates say is quick to break up into tiny pieces and harms animals.

“Nothing we use for a few minutes should be allowed to pollute our planet for hundreds of years, especially when we don’t really need it and there are good alternatives,” said Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, who carried the bill on the floor.

Republicans had widely derided the bill, along with other regulations on plastics. But Democrats shared some of their concerns when it came to polystyrene foam for one key reason: a Tigard company called Agilyx recycles plastic foam products. Lawmakers have worried Oregon could be ignoring — or even neglecting — a useful local resource by enacting a ban.

“We have an opportunity to let a company really make a difference in the plastic we put into our environment, and I think we should let them do that,” state Sen. Alan Olsen, R-Canby, said Tuesday.

In committee hearings on the bill, Agilyx had said it welcomed more polystyrene foam waste.

“Not only can it be reused, it can be recycled again and again and again,” John Desmarteau, the company’s business development manager, told lawmakers. “We are reducing the need for virgin fossil fuels by reducing the waste we have already generated.”

That sentiment came with caveats, however. Agilyx acknowledged that waste from food service containers constitutes a tiny part of its business. No curbside recycling services in Oregon accept polystyrene foam containers.

Sen. Ginny Burdick, whose district contains the facility, supported the foam container ban, saying: “We do not benefit from an expanding market for Styrofoam because it’s killing our oceans.”

Heartburn over the Tigard facility had already nearly tanked HB 2883 in the House. The bill narrowly failed to pass on Earth Day, forcing leadership to call it up again when one Democratic member returned from an absence for illness.

On the Senate side, lawmakers amended the bill to address concerns. Under the change, any food service entity that could ensure styrofoam containers were kept on site, collected and recycled would be free to use them.

Dembrow said after HB 2883 failed to pass that the outcome had always looked tight, but he’d hoped the amendment would win over skeptical lawmakers.

“We knew it was going to be really close, we didn’t know exactly how it was going to come down,” he said.

HB 2509, the plastic bag ban, prevents grocers and restaurants statewide from giving out single-use plastic bags — an idea lawmakers first considered in 2011. Ten cities around Oregon have already enacted their own bag bans.

With the bill’s passage, grocers will be required to use paper bags made of at least 40 percent recycled material, for which they must charge at least 5 cents a piece. Low-income Oregonians would be exempt from that charge. Restaurants can give away paper bags for free.

The mandatory bag fee will go into effect even in Portland, which already has a ban in place but doesn’t require a charge.

The fee was implemented partly as a way to encourage shoppers to bring their own reusable bags. It was supported by grocers, who see it as a way to recoup a portion of what they spend on bags, but saw pushback from paper interests worried reduced demand will harm their business.

“Such a drop in bag usage would be devastating on union manufacturing jobs, forest product jobs and local economies,” said written testimony from the Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers. “Many of the paper bags used throughout the country are made in Oregon.”

Senate Republicans also disliked the fee — so much so that Sen. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas, attempted a rare maneuver of amending the bill on the floor to undo the 5-cent charge. He argued the state’s recycling industry benefits from paper bags, and would be harmed if they are used less.

Boquist’s motion needed unanimous consent, and died when Burdick objected.

Republican senators also argued that reusable bags are potentially unsanitary, that paper bags release methane, and that bags weren’t an appropriate thing for the state to regulate in the first place. The bill passed largely along party lines, with Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield, joining Republicans in opposition.

Even with the failure of the polystyrene foam bill, Oregon has placed itself near the forefront of a movement to reduce plastics waste. It is the among the first states in the country to institute statewide regulations on single-use plastic bags and straws.

Copyright 2019 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Dirk VanderHart is JPR's Salem correspondent reporting from the Oregon State Capitol. His reporting is funded through a collaboration among public radio stations in Oregon and Washington that includes JPR.