Restaurants across Oregon would be forbidden from handing out single-use plastic straws without a customer’s request, under several bills that lawmakers are considering this year.
If passed, the policy could make Oregon just the second state in the nation to regulate plastic straws statewide, after California passed a law last year. But lawmakers first need to answer some big questions.
As Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, put it during a committee hearing on Tuesday: “Who do we follow, California or Portland?”
A bill currently before the Senate Environmental and Natural Resources Committee would make it illegal for any restaurant to give customers a plastic straw without first being asked — a policy that resembles a wider-ranging ordinance passed by Portland City Council late last year. Breaking the law would be punishable by $25, with a $300 yearly limit on penalties.
But an amendment to the bill introduced by state Sen. Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay, would pare the law down, ensuring it applies only to full-service restaurants — not fast food. That’s akin to California’s law.
And in a twist that concerns environmental groups and Portland city officials, the amendment would pre-empt any city in the state from enacting its own rules for drinking straws. That would take precedence over Portland’s policy, sharply decreasing the number of restaurants regulated in the city.
“We would hate for this bill to undermine all the work that’s been done in Portland, as well as work that’s being done on the coast right now,” said Charlie Plybon, the Oregon policy manager for the Surfrider Foundation, which helped craft Portland’s law.
Regulations on single-use straws have flourished since a 2015 video of biologists removing a straw from a sea turtle's nostril went viral, drawing widespread attention to the hazards plastic waste presents for wildlife.
“Coastal rehabilitation centers regularly get in seabirds that are starving to death because their digestive tracts are literally clogged with plastic,” Bob Sallinger, conservation director at the Audubon Society of Portland, told lawmakers Tuesday. “To a bird that eats plankton, plastic looks like food and they’ll gobble it up.”
Seattle became the first major city to ban plastic straws in food service in July 2018. California passed a statewide law for full-service restaurants months later but declined to ban straws outright, opting instead to require that customers request them. Portland approved a similar law in December 2018 but applied it to all restaurants and folded in plastic utensils and other items that customers will have to ask for in July when the law takes effect.
While Portland initially considered an outright ban on plastic straws, Plybon and other advocates say the request-only policy makes sense. It forces consumers to think about their use of disposable straws, but it doesn’t pose an inconvenience for people with disabilities who require them. Plybon said participating restaurants during a pilot program in Portland saw straw usage decline 40 to 60 percent.
But Plybon and others are also skeptical of any policy that would stop cities from enacting their own, stricter rules. That’s an approach favored by the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association and the American Chemistry Council, which sent representatives to testify in favor of pre-emption.
“Having a patchwork of bills or laws across the state makes it very difficult and challenging for our members that are in different jurisdictions,” said Greg Astley, of the restaurant association.
Those concerns, Roblan said, prompted him to file the proposed amendments, which have yet to receive a vote in committee. If they passed, the senate bill would be nearly identical to a bill introduced in the House by a bipartisan group of 11 lawmakers.
The proposal faced skepticism from some Republicans on the senate committee taking up the bill Tuesday. Sen. Alan Olsen, R-Canby, suggested the law could make drivers unsafe by encouraging use of metal or glass straws that would be dangerous in a crash. Sen. Cliff Bentz, R- Ontario, pointed out that an Oregon law wouldn’t make much difference on a global scale.
While Roblan said Tuesday he would consider tweaks to his proposal, he stood by the concept of a pre-emption on local policies regulating straws.
“If you really want to send a message, [telling] everyone they have to do this kind of stuff forces a constant message around the state,” he said. “The more people who think about their actions, the more likely we are to have changes.”