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Bill to ban plastic foam food containers clears Oregon Senate, heads to state House

Senator Janeen Sollman, D-Hillsboro, is a chief sponsor of the proposal to ban food containers made of polystyrene foam, along with foam coolers and packing peanuts.
Kristyna Wentz-Graff
Senator Janeen Sollman, D-Hillsboro, is a chief sponsor of the proposal to ban food containers made of polystyrene foam, along with foam coolers and packing peanuts.

A similar bill failed to pass the chamber in 2019.

Restaurants, food carts and other vendors in Oregon would be banned from serving meals in plastic foam containers under a bill state Senators approved on Monday.

Four years after a similar bill died in dramatic fashion, the chamber OK’d Senate Bill 543 by a 20-9 vote. It now moves to the House.

If the legislation is signed by Gov. Tina Kotek, Oregon would join Washington, Coloradoand six other states that have outlawed the use of polystyrene foam — commonly known as Styrofoam — in takeout containers. The bill also would prohibit vendors from using or selling single-use styrofoam coolers and foam packing peanuts.

Those bans would take hold in 2025, and impose fines ranging from $100 to $500 a day for those who violate the law. The bill does not affect the use of other styrofoam products, including the packaging used to ship and store food that has not been prepared to eat, like egg cartons.

SB 543 also bans vendors from using containers that include what are known as PFAS, the so-called “forever chemicals” that can make material like cardboard resistant to grease, but which don’t readily break down and have been linked to some cancers, high cholesterol and decreases in infant birth weight.

“Breaking up is hard to do, but when a relationship is toxic you must set it free,” said state Sen. Janeen Sollman, a Hillsboro Democrat and one of the bill’s chief sponsors. “Polystyrene is toxic… The fact is these single-use foodware products are just not being reclaimed in our recycling process.”

Plastic foam packaging has been a persistent target of environmental groups in Oregon, who note they break up easily into tiny pieces and can find their way into the food chain. But while advocates have had success limiting access to products like plastic bags and straws, foam has proven more tricky.

In 2019, a bill to ban foam packaging fell apart when some Democrats joined many Republicans in opposition. The politicians were motivated by a Tigard company called Agilyx, which recycles some polystyrene foam products. They wanted to support the company and signaled hope the state could create a better system for recycling foam food containers rather than pursuing an outright ban. No such system has emerged.

Four years later, the cast of characters in the Legislature is very different, and SB 543 appears to have a better chance of passage.

“Nothing we use for just a few minutes should pollute the environment for hundreds of years,” Celeste Meiffren-Swango, state director with Environment Oregon, said in a statement following the Senate vote. “Oregon is one step closer to joining nine Oregon cities and eight other states that have taken action to reduce wasteful polystyrene foodware and other products, and we look forward to seeing this bill continue to move through the legislature.”

Restaurant and grocer groups were neutral on SB 543, but the bill has seen opposition from industry groups saying that a ban would add another unneeded layer of regulation onto a2021 law, which will require producers of plastic packaging to take responsibility for their products — and fund programs to safely dispose of them.

Copyright 2023 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit 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.