Paper or … Paper? State Passes Bill Prohibiting Single-Use Plastic Bags

Single-use plastic bags for groceries, restaurant takeout and other retail items will soon be a thing of the past, under a bill approved by the Oregon Senate today.

House Bill 2509 prohibits retail establishments and restaurants from providing single-use plastic checkout bags to customers. Under the bill, those establishments would be able to provide consumers with recycled paper bags or reusable plastic bags for a fee of at least 5 cents, paid by the consumer.

Businesses found guilty of violating the new law would be subject to fines of up to $250.

The bill passed 17-12 in the Senate, with all 11 Republicans and one Democrat, Lee Beyer, of Springfield, voting against. HB 2509 now goes to Gov. Kate Brown for her signature.

“Plastic bags are difficult to recycle and are light enough to be blown around easily,” said Sen. Michael Dembrow (D-Portland). “As a result, they are strewn all over the place and are a common form of pollution in our world’s oceans. They don’t biodegrade and so the only way to rid ourselves of them is to stop using them. Much like in the case of polystyrene, something we use once shouldn’t be able to pollute our environment for hundreds of years.”

Canby’s state senator, Republican Alan Olsen, was one of the lawmakers who opposed the measure on the floor, in a presentation that included visual aids. He compared and contrasted the new, more environmentally friendly bags now used at Cutsforth’s Thriftway with the paper bags the store offers, saying the brown bags also negatively impact the environment and are basically “not functional” when it rains.

So, what about reusable cloth bags? Well, Sen. Olsen wasn’t thrilled about those either.

There are a number of types of plastic bags that will be exempt under the measure, including those used to package loose items such as fruit, vegetables, nuts, grains, greeting cards or small hardware items, and those that are sold in bulk and intended to store food, be used as trash bags or collect pet waste.

In passing this measure, Oregon becomes one of 12 state legislatures that have considered measures to regulate using single-use checkout bags. Maine enacted the first of these in 1991, requiring retailers to provide checkout bag recycling as a condition of providing plastic bags to customers at the time goods are sold. Other states have imposed bans or fees on single-use checkout bags.

In Oregon, 10 cities have banned single-use checkout bags, beginning with Portland in 2011. Each city’s policy is slightly different. This bill is supported by the Northwest Grocery Association, primarily because it will create statewide consistency.

Many residents from across the state submitted testimony regarding HB 2509, most of them in favor, saying the bill will help to protect our forests, lands, wildlife and waterways. Those who were opposed, like Mike Draper, of the National Forest Products National Labor Management Committee, objected not to the bill itself, but to the 5 cent fee it enacts for the use of a paper bag.

“It doesn’t make any sense for the legislature to require consumers to pay for bags, a service that until now they have received at no cost, to benefit grocers,” he said. “Consumers already pay for the bags in the price of their groceries.”

Republican Sens. Dennis Linthicum and Kim Thatcher derided the bill’s passage, saying it doesn’t allow free market enterprise to address the issue and that it, through its enforcement mechanism, essentially creates a “bag police.”

“Instead of banning the bag, we should have bagged the ban,” they said. “The bill was so poorly written. … Simply, the bill is not rooted in reality, it is not going to help the environment and it doesn’t even achieve the so-called ‘intention’ of the bill. The supermajority’s legislation this session is proving to be nothing more than a litany of campaign bills and flawed policy. Oregonians deserve better.”

A related bill, which would have banned food vendors from offering polystyrene containers, failed in a vote on the Senate floor today.

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