On Earth Day, Oregon’s House of Representatives took up a bill that would have banned the use of food containers made from plastic foam, commonly known as Styrofoam.

But what might have been a symbolic vote wound up taking on a different meaning than many legislators hoped.

House Bill 2883 failed, in an extremely tight vote that saw one veteran Democrat change his vote at the last minute. The bill was immediately pulled back for potential reconsideration another day.

State Rep. Jeff Barker, D-Aloha, in the Oregon House of Representatives, Salem, Ore., Monday, Jan. 14, 2019.

State Rep. Jeff Barker, D-Aloha, in the Oregon House of Representatives, Salem, Ore., Monday, Jan. 14, 2019.

Bradley W. Parks/OPB

Under HB 2883, businesses around Oregon would be prohibited from serving prepared food and beverages in polystyrene foam containers. It’s a proposal that wouldn’t apply to your carton of eggs, but it would apply to the egg salad sandwich your favorite deli serves in a plastic foam box.

Supporters of the bill say it’s yet another way to help curb plastic waste. They argue that polystyrene breaks up easily, is frequently tossed aside as litter and can find its way into the food chain. In written testimony, the Oregon League of Conservation Voters said this type of plastic waste accounts for 10 to 40 percent of litter collected during stream cleanups.

“Every day, Oregonians throw away literally tons of plastic in the form of single-use cups plates, utensil and containers,” said state Rep. Sheri Schouten, D-Beaverton, who introduced the bill on the House floor. “Among the worst forms of plastic pollution is polystyrene foam.”

But while many of her fellow Democrats agreed with Schouten’s logic, it quickly became clear there was bipartisan opposition to the bill.

Rep. Margaret Doherty, D-Tigard, opposed the bill because a facility in her district, Agilyx, is able to recycle plastic foam for future uses.

“A pollutant that can’t be recycled should be banned, but that is not the case with polystyrene,” said Doherty. “Being Earth Day, it should be a time that we celebrate recycling and renewing and reusing.”

Other representatives argued that ensuring more of the state’s polystyrene waste flows to the Tigard facility was a better idea than banning it.

“Here we have a recycling industry in this state that has moved forward, on their own dime, to provide a service and a need for our environment and this Legislature could take it away,” said Rep. David Brock Smith, R-Port Orford.

Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Clackamas, who runs several McDonald’s restaurants, said Oregon is already making life too difficult for restaurant owners. She urged a “no” vote. She and others spoke of potential cost increases to businesses because of the proposal.

Supporters of the bill pointed out that other forms of polystyrene — not to mention waste from other states — could still be recycled in Tigard. And they said reducing plastic food containers would be more useful than recycling them.

Republicans, apparently sensing weakness, called a huddle just before the chamber voted on the measure. But when the votes rolled in, it appeared that HB 2883 had passed with the required 31 votes.

That changed when Rep. Jeff Barker, D-Aloha, who’d been talking with Republicans at the rear of the chamber, changed his vote to a “no.”

“I was concerned about the business in Tigard that’s trying to recycle that, and I wanted to support them,” Barker said after the vote.

Barker said he’d always intended to vote against the ban and that the early tally showing him in support was a “mix up.”

Immediately after the bill failed, legislators pulled it back, leaving the possibility it could be called up later. The House was missing one Republican and one Democrat on Monday, which could rejigger the calculus.

“It’s rare that a bill fails on the floor,” Barker said. “When it does that’s always a motion that’s made, but it’s very rare that that comes back.”

Polystyrene bans are already in place or being considered in some Oregon cities, including Portland, Eugene and Ashland. Such policies are gaining popularity nationwide as well, with around a dozen states and Washington, D.C., reportedly having some local bans in place. Maryland’s Legislature has passed a statewide ban on plastic foam packaging for food service businesses. 

In Oregon, the polystyrene bill was one of several being proposed this year to eliminate single-use plastic items. Bills to cut down on the use of plastic straws and ban single-use plastic grocery bags are still under consideration. The latter proposal was scheduled for a hearing in committee Monday afternoon.