Bag ban: Paper, plastic, BYOB or all 3?
SALEM -- Oregon lawmakers began considering Tuesday whether the state should become the first to pass a ban on plastic bags, a measure recycling advocates believe would trigger a domino effect among other states.
A bill co-sponsored by two Republicans and two Democrats would outlaw throwaway plastic check-out bags at all retail stores in Oregon, a state that is already a national leader in passing green legislation. Shoppers would be forced to bring their own bag or pay a nickel apiece for recycled paper bags under SB536.
READ: Senate Bill 536
JOIN DISCUSSION: Paper, plastic, or BYOB?
The bill's sponsors are Democrats Sen. Mark Hass and Rep. Ben Cannon and Republicans Rep. Vic Gilliam and Sen. Jason Atkinson.
The first hearing was set for Tuesday afternoon in Salem on the proposed ban, which is supported by the Northwest Grocers Association and one of the state's biggest bag users -- Fred Meyer stores.
A number of supporters, who expect a fight with the chemical industry, are framing the debate as a jobs issue.
"There are over 2,000 Oregonians employed in the paper bag manufacturing industry," said Jon Isaacs, executive director of the Oregon League of Conservation Voters. "Not one single plastic bag is produced here."
Charlie Plybon, head of a group that advocates for clean beaches and clean oceans, said he received a call from a mysterious marketer that said it was conducting a survey on the proposed plastic bill ban. He said all of questions were slanted toward talking the respondent into opposing the legislation. The caller even said "bag police" would fine Oregonians for violations. There is no such provision in the proposed legislation.
"The more you answer, `Yes, I still favor the plastic bag legislation,' the longer the survey lasts, the more questions they ask you, the more information they kind of throw at you," Plybon said from his home in Newport.
Others have reported similar calls.
Passage of SB536 could lead other states to draft similar laws, said Vince Cobb, founder of Reusit.com from Chicago, calling the measure a "tipping point."
Before the session, Republican leaders said the issue was not on their radar, and questioned how it could address the state's most pressing issue -- jobs.
Co-sponsor Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, counters that Oregon should be doing what it can to help paper bag plants like International Paper's in Beaverton to stay open.
The grocer and general merchandise retailer Fred Meyer has already stopped handing out plastic bags at 10 stores around Portland to jump-start the transition.
"We see this train has left the station," Fred Meyer spokeswoman Melinda Merrill said from Portland. A telephone survey of 600 moderate voters last June found 77 percent favoring a ban, Isaacs said.
Nine cities and counties have adopted resolutions warning the Legislature that if it doesn't address the issue, they will, according to the Northwest Grocers Association.
"We feel very, very positive about the prospect of Oregon becoming the first state in the county to take this step," said Isaacs. "We believe it's in the spirit of the Oregon bottle bill and the beach bill. It would re-establish Oregon on the cutting edge of responsible environmental policy."
The bill would prohibit single-use plastic checkout bags at all retail stores. Retailers would have to charge 5 cents apiece for recycled paper bags, but be able to keep the money.
That will drive up costs for retailers, who pay less than a penny apiece for plastic bags and 5 cents or more for paper bags, said Fred Meyer's Merrill. But it is preferable to having to meet different standards as cities and counties adopt their own measures.
In Portland, Fred Meyer shoppers have switched overwhelmingly to paper bags, which are still free, rather than bringing their own, Merrill said.
San Francisco adopted the first citywide ban in 2007, and localities from Hawaii to Washington, D.C., have imposed controls.
San Francisco found their ban covering large grocery and drug stores has reduced litter and down time on recycling sorting machines jammed up with plastic bags, with virtually no complaints from the public, said Mark Westlund, spokesman for the city's Department of the Environment.
California's Legislature defeated a statewide ban last fall under intense lobbying from the chemical industry, which argued that it would cost jobs by shutting down plastic bag manufacturers in the state.
But a growing number of cities around California are adopting bans, and San Francisco is considering expanding theirs to all retail stores, with a 5 cent fee on paper bags, Westlund added.
Hass said the first people to come to him looking for a statewide ban were on the Tillamook City Council, frustrated that plastic bags were jamming recycling equipment so frequently.
Hass said only 4 percent of the 1.7 billion plastic bags used each year in Oregon get recycled, leaving the rest to go into landfills, the wrong recycling bins, and the landscape.
The American Chemistry Council will be lobbying lawmakers hard to make Oregon another "No."
The organization will have a lobbyist in Salem working to steer lawmakers to some alternative, such as more convenient recycling, said senior director of state affairs Tim Shestek from Sacramento, Calif.
State records show the organization gave $1,000 apiece to 15 current Oregon lawmakers last year -- eight Republicans and seven Democrats. The $15,000 total is triple the nearly $5,000 in 2008.
Shestek said they will be arguing the ban amounts to price-fixing on a mandatory purchase, and could lead down a slippery slope to fees on disposable coffee cups, fast food packaging, and potato chip bags.
"From our standpoint, paper or plastic ought to be a choice for the consumer," Shestek said.