SALEM — Three anti-plastic bills are moving through the House and Senate, hoping to avoid the Capitol’s growing midsession legislative trash pit.
Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Eugene, the chairman of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee, pointed recently to the impact of plastic on nature.
“We all know that single-use plastics are easy, they’re convenient and they’re relatively inexpensive — but only in the short run,” Dembrow said. “Over the long run, they bring high cost for all of us.”
Each bill has taken a sometimes confusing path through the Legislature.
“One day Styrofoam is out, the next day it’s in — out, in, out, in,” said Rep. Cheri Helt, R-Bend, about multiple rounds of votes.
Each bill had its unique subjects — and outcomes.
House Bill 2883 targets polystyrene. House Bill 2509 goes after plastic bags. Senate Bill 90 wants to curb use of plastic straws.
The polystyrene bill would bar vendors from packaging prepared foods in containers made of the material. Exempted are reusable polystyrene coolers encased in a solid plastic shell, storage containers for unprepared foods or ingredients, or material used for packing, storage or shipping.
Opponents brought up Agilyx, a Tigard company that recycles some polystyrene into new products.
Rep. Jack Zika, R-Redmond, pointed to efforts in Bend to get the Les Schwab Amphitheater to switch from plastic containers and utensils to polystyrene that could be recycled.
“Why would you ban something that can be recycled and make people use stuff that is just going to go in a landfill?” Zika said.
Legislative leaders rarely bring a bill up for a vote without knowing the outcome ahead of time. So, on April 22, Earth Day — a coincidence, Democratic leaders later said — the Styrofoam ban came up in the House for consideration.
Surprisingly, seven Democrats joined with Republicans to oppose the bill, leaving the vote count at 30-28 in favor. But 31 votes are needed for a bill to pass in the 60-member chamber. Two lawmakers were absent.
Bill supporters swiftly made a procedural gambit. The bill was technically killed off. But the absent lawmakers returned the next day, the bill was resurrected, and it passed 32-28. Zika and Helt were among those voting “no.” It now goes to the Senate.
Bans on plastic bags have proliferated around Oregon in recent years. Bend is among 16 cities in Oregon that have passed some variation. Portland, Eugene, Corvallis and Ashland are on the list, and Salem’s law becomes effective next year.
California is the only state that bans plastic bags. Hawaii’s largest counties have bans — giving the state essentially a de facto ban. New York’s ban starts next year.
The Oregon bill would prohibit retail establishments from providing customers with plastic checkout bags. It’s supported by groups such as Environment Oregon and the Surfrider Foundation. It was opposed by the group Oregon Business & Industry.
House Bill 2509 passed the House Committee on Energy and Environment on a 6-3 vote. Zika, a committee member, voted “no.”
“This would be another burden on small businesses,” Zika said.
Like the polystyrene ban, the bag ban took an unusual zigzag route on the House floor. It was called up for a vote, but during debate, lawmakers had questions about whether the ban included plastic garment bags placed over suits and other clothes. Proponents weren’t entirely sure.
The bill was sent back to the House Rules Committee to clarify that garment bags were exempt. They joined an already long list of existing exemptions in the bill, including pharmacy bags to ensure customer’s privacy and those used for the sale of fresh meat or fish packed in ice.
Reworked, the plastic bag ban is scheduled for a vote in the House on Thursday. If approved, it would go to the Senate.
In the Senate, environmentalists originally hoped to put a significant dent in the number of single-use plastic straws used in Oregon. Along the way, Senate Bill 90 was amended with pro-business ideas, including some from American Chemistry Council. Some environmentalists abandoned the bill over a provision that would block Oregon cities from passing their own, tougher statues.
As now written, the bill would simply stop food service employees from automatically giving out plastic straws with drinks. If diners ask, they can still get one. Drive-thru restaurant customers would automatically be given a straw, and straws could be put out on convenience store counters.
Whatever its drawbacks, Dembrow asked senators to support the bill because it would “create a standard that was consistent and would be effective.”
The bill passed the Senate 23-6 on April 11 and is scheduled for a public hearing in the House Committee on Energy and Environment today .
After the Senate vote, Sen. Alan Olsen, R-Canby, said he voted “yes” simply to “stop this crazy idea” from going any further than it did.
“We have really, really important things in our state to do, and this certainly wasn’t one that needed to take as much time and effort as it did,” he said.
Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, who voted “yes,” was more philosophical. He said he had gone without using straws in restaurants for 15 years, “and I eat out a lot.”
“I don’t think this is a big thing for people to do, and I think it does help improve the health of our planet,” Knopp said
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