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Oregon Senate votes to ban single-use plastic bags


(Update: More details, Styrofoam ban fails)

SALEM, Ore. (AP) – The Oregon Senate voted Tuesday to prohibit single-use plastic shopping bags, joining a growing movement to reduce plastic pollution in oceans.

The Senate voted 17-12 to keep grocery stores and restaurants from providing such bags. Stores would still be able to offer recyclable plastic and paper bags for a 5-cent fee, something opponents said punished consumers.

The bill will now go to Gov. Kate Brown for consideration. She previously spoke in support of the measure.

Oregon would join California, New York and Hawaii in banning single-use plastic bags.

“Something we use once shouldn’t be able to pollute our environment for hundreds of years,” said Sen. Michael Dembrow, a Portland Democrat behind the measure.

Democrats were stopped short of pushing through their full environmental agenda when then Senate rejected a ban on food containers made of polystyrene, also known as Styrofoam.

Republicans were against both measures and argued that the bans stifled technological innovation. They also said lawmakers should let the free market come up with solutions to the plastic problem.

Supporters said the bans were meant to reduce the ever-increasing amount of plastic pollution in the oceans.

Sen. Arnie Roblan and Sen. Betsy Johnson, two Democrats representing coastal areas, voted for the plastic bag ban and joined Republicans in rejecting the prohibition on Styrofoam containers.

Plastic bags and Styrofoam containers are some of the most common types of beach litter. Over 8 million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean each year, and the World Economic Forum projects that there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050.

Plastics can take hundreds of years to break down, and even then they break into smaller pieces of debris called microplastics which never degrade and can pose a threat to aquatic life.

The U.S. produced over 126 billion plastic grocery bags in 2015, according to EPA data. Only 12.8% of those bags were recycled.

Styrofoam food containers, meanwhile, are nearly impossible to recycle and only one recycling facility in the state of Oregon accepts them. Maine and Maryland approved statewide bans on the containers last month.

The bills were part of a trio of measures aimed at reducing reliance on disposable plastics, the third being a plastic straw ban that gained legislative approval in late May.

News release from Oregon Senate Democrats:

Single-use plastic bags for groceries, restaurant takeout and other retail items will be a thing of the past, under a bill approved Tuesday by the Oregon Senate and sent to Gov. Kate Brown’s desk.

House Bill 2509 – which passed with a 17-12 vote on the Senate floor – 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.

“Plastic bags are difficult to recycle and are light enough to be blown around easily,” Sen. Michael Dembrow (D-Portland) said. “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.”

Bags that will be exempted from this law include those used to package bulk items such as fruit, vegetables, nuts, grains, greeting cards or small hardware items; contain or wrap frozen food, meat, fish, flowers, a potted plant or other items because of dampness or sanitation; contain an unwrapped prepared food or bakery good; contain a prescription drug; newspaper bags; door hanger bags; laundry bags; dry cleaning bags; and bags sold in a package of multiple units and intended to store food, be used as trash bags or collect pet waste.

Recycled paper and reusable plastic bags can be given to customers using vouchers under the Women, Infants and Children Program who use electronic benefits transfer cards issued by the Oregon Department of Human Services.

Across the United States, 12 state legislatures have considered measures to regulate using single-use checkout bags, especially plastic bags, at grocery stores and other businesses. 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 will create statewide consistency, which is the primary reason it is supported by the Northwest Grocery Association.

“Oregon’s local governments already have been stepping up to do their part,” Dembrow said. “But we need a consistent, statewide effort to have a truly meaningful impact in keeping plastic bags out of our natural environment and out of our oceans, where they are doing significant damage to aquatic life.”

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