A group of Oregon lawmakers is hoping that new blood in the state House and Senate help make this the year the state outlaws food containers made from plastic foam.
Under Senate Bill 543, food vendors would be banned from offering prepared food in single-use containers made of polystyrene foam — often known as Styrofoam — beginning in 2025.
The bill got its first hearing before a Senate committee on Tuesday, with an array of environmental advocates lining up in support — even as restaurant representatives and industry players argued the bill is overkill.
Similar proposals have been floated repeatedly in Salem, where lawmakers have shown an appetite for curbing the use of plastics products that often wind up as litter and can find their way into the food chain. But while cities throughout the state have enacted their own bans on foam food containers, state lawmakers have yet to set a policy for all of Oregon.
In 2019, a bill to outlaw the products saw repeated setbacks. First it failed to pass the state House — in a vote taken on Earth Day. While that defeat proved temporary, the bill was rejected a second time in a vote in the state Senate.
A major sticking point four years ago was a Tigard company called Agilyx, which recycles plastic foam. Foam products are not eligible for curbside recycling, but the company’s presence in the Portland metro area convinced a number of Democrats to oppose an outright ban; they hoped the state could create a better system for recycling foam food containers. Those Democrats joined with Republicans — who broadly opposed the bill — to tank the proposal.
But the state Legislature looks very different this year than it did in 2019. More than a third of the House’s 60 members are brand new to the building, while the 30-member Senate includes seven new faces (most of them former state representatives).
Those changes could make a difference as SB 543 moves forward — even as the broad outlines of debate over the policy have changed little.
“For many birds, fish and many other forms of marine life, foam particles can resemble plankton and even eggs of other animals and are mistaken for food,” Charlie Plybon, the Oregon policy manager for the Surfrider Foundation, wrote in supportive testimony. “From the very bottom to the top of the food chain foam particles are all too often ingested, carry toxins up the ocean food chain, toxins that can also be found in humans.”
Groups like Environment Oregon, Metro, the Oregon Environmental Council, and the Oregon State Public Interest Research Group have all offered support of the bill. They argue that foam products like cups and food containers are especially pernicious, because they break down into small pieces very easily.
Meanwhile industry groups say that a ban would add another unneeded layer of regulation onto a 2021 law, which will require producers of plastic packaging to take responsibility for their products — and fund programs to safely dispose of them.
“The Legislature should allow [the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality] and stakeholders to complete the… rulemaking process first before proposing sweeping packaging policy changes that will undoubtedly add state administrative costs and be unduly burdensome for the regulated community,” testimony from 12 industry opponents said.
SB 543 would apply only to containers that carry prepared foods and drinks — not to products like foam egg cartons in grocery stores. The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Janeen Sollman, D-Hillsboro, initially included language in the bill that would have set guidelines for containers that vendors could use instead. After pushback from business groups that those guidelines were unreasonably burdensome, Sollman is proposing to delete the language and instead create a task force to study viable replacements.
While Oregon has no statewide ban on Styrofoam food containers, roughly 10 cities in the state have adopted their own – including Portland, Medford, Eugene, Ashland and Florence. Eight states, including Washington, have adopted some rules prohibiting plastic foam containers, according to legislative analysts.