Plastic bag ban debate : Green milestone for Oregon or a new tax on groceries?
Published: Tuesday, February 08, 2011, 7:17 PM Updated: Tuesday, February 08, 2011, 7:45 PM
SALEM -- Banning plastic checkout bags would either write another proud chapter in Oregon's green heritage or create a costly and even potentially hazardous nuisance for consumers, state legislators heard Tuesday.
Business lobbyists, environmental activists and taxpayer advocates packed a Senate committee hearing into the evening to present widely divergent views on what is shaping up as the top environmental issue of the session.
The legislation, Senate Bill 536, has won powerful support from a bipartisan group of legislators, environmental groups and the grocery industry. They've crafted a proposal that outlaws the single-use plastic bag for retail check-out while offering consumers the alternatives of paying 5 cents for a paper bag or bringing in their own reusable bag. The bill offers some exceptions, including pharmacies and restaurants.
But officials from the plastics industry -- worried that Oregon could be the first state in the country to ban the ubiquitous featherweight plastic bags -- have mounted a full-court press against the bill, hiring lobbyists and presenting studies critical of the ban.
Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, one of the bill's chief sponsors, repeatedly tangled with Mark Daniels, a vice president at Hilex Poly Co., one of the country's largest plastic bag manufacturers.
"These bags have been hard on Oregon's environment and even harder on Oregon's economy," said Hass at a hearing held by the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee. He said that the last time Oregon faced a similar litter problem -- in 1971 -- it became the first state in the nation to pass a bottle-deposit law. He also said the plastic bags have largely eclipsed the use of paper bags, which are produced in Oregon and create jobs here.
Daniels insisted that several studies show that plastic bags account for less than 1 percent of the litter problem and that his company is making major strides in boosting recycling for plastic bags. Some 30,000 retailers around the country now have recycling bins for the bags, he said.
Hass scoffed at that.
"I think Oregonians would love to recycle their bags," he said, "and if they could, we wouldn't be here today."
Daniels said that while recycling rates for bags seem low, part of the reason is that consumers rely on the bags for a number of other home uses. Overall, he said that 13 percent of bags are recycled, although some critics said the percentage is lower than that.
Daniels and other critics of the legislation also launched heated debate when they contended that reusable bags raise sanitation concerns. He cited studies claiming that the reusable bags often become contaminated with e-coli, salmonella and other harmful bacteria because few consumers wash them regularly.
"What a choice," Daniels said in his prepared testimony, "forcing consumers to either pay a tax on paper bags or place themselves in harm's way with the hidden consequences of 'reusable' bags."
Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, said he and his wife have shopped with reusable bags for years without a problem. He said the charge reminded him of the sanitation fears that used to be raised by critics of the bottle-deposit law.
He criticized one study cited by Daniels, noting that it was paid for by an arm of the plastics industry. "It seems like they bought and paid for it...which makes it suspect to me."
Environmental groups – particularly ones dealing with rivers and the ocean -- have pushed for disposable plastic bag bans for years. So have recyclers.
Jeff Murray of Far West Fibers of Beaverton said that plastic bags frequently clog the sorting machines at his company's recycling facility and cause as much as seven percent of his paper recyclables to be rejected and sent to a landfill because of plastic contamination.
At the same time, the bill has become a target for several conservative groups, includingAmericans for Tax Reform, Americans for Prosperity, the Cascade Policy Institute and theTaxpayers Association of Oregon.
In this economy, having government increase the cost of going to the grocery store "is not a wise move," said Josh Culling, an official from Americans for Tax Reform. He said a ban would particularly affect low-income Oregonians who are already struggling to pay for their groceries.
The conservative groups have directed much of their heat at Sen. Jason Atkinson, R-Central Point, one of the chief sponsors of the bill, who has a staunchly conservative voting record.
However, Atkinson remained firm in support of the measure, saying the bill would head off a patchwork of regulations imposed by local governments. And he said the state should be doing what it can to support the wood-products industry.
"What makes this work really well is that Oregon doesn't make anything that is plastic," he said. "But we do grow a lot of trees."
Joe Gilliam, a grocery industry lobbyist who helped negotiate the terms of the bill, said he's become convinced that the plastics industry can't solve the litter problem created by the disposable plastic bags.
As a result, Gilliam said the legislation represents a workable way for retailers to bow to pressure to move away from the use of plastic bags. If plastic bags were simply banned, he said, grocers would face a big increase in costs.
Plastic bags cost about a penny apiece, while paper bags range from four to six cents each. Imposing a five-cent fee will allow grocers to recover their costs, he said.
Backers of the bill say they intend to begin the process of moving the bill out of committee soon. Hass said he hasn't counted votes but is encouraged by the bipartisan support for the measure.
-- Jeff Mapes