A few months ago Nick Gross wouldn’t have thought twice about taking reusable bags with him when he went grocery shopping. In fact, he wouldn't have thought about it at all.
Now, most of the time he goes to the store he thinks about his reusable shopping bags — usually when he’s in the checkout line and realizes he forgot to bring any. That’s when he has to decide whether to pay the store's per-bag fee for his groceries or carry them out.
“It puts it on the consumer to deal with the fallout of the ban as far as remembering to take your reusable bags into the store with you, which I always forget 90%of the time," the Damascus resident said. "Then you end up having to pay 5 cents for a bag that you used to get for free.”
Gross, along with thousands of Oregonians, are still adjusting to the single-use plastic bag ban which was implemented on Jan. 1.
House Bill 2509 — which banned retail stores and restaurants from providing single-use plastic bags also introduced a minimum fee of 5 cents per paper bag or reusable, thicker plastic bags. The businesses then keep the fee to help them recover the costs in providing these types of bags.
The goal is to reduce Oregon's plastic waste and prevent plastic bags from getting stuck in machines at recycling centers.
According to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality's 2016 waste study, Oregon disposes over 550 million pounds of plastic waste annually, with 11 million pounds of that amount coming from plastic grocery and merchandise bags alone.
OPB heard from thousands of Oregonians who responded to on-air, social media and online requests for people to share their experiences with the bag ban. One thing is clear: Many Oregonians are still getting the hang of bringing their own bags or paying the store for theirs.
OPB received over 4,100 responses. Among those who contacted us, some said they are happy that Oregon is following the trend in banning these plastic bags — but many others said the fee is unfair and the thicker plastic bags sold by stores and restaurants won’t help reduce plastic waste.
“It can be a hardship. It can be quite a shock to be told that you have to pay a little bit extra,” northeast Portland resident Carla Rose-Allen said.
Rose-Allen said she’s fine with a ban on single-use plastic bags but she has mixed feelings about the bag fee.
“I know there are lots of people who do live on a strict and fixed budget and that nickel or maybe several nickels if it’s several bags do add up for a lot of people,” Rose-Allen said.
Sarah Hodges said the fee is unfair for her.
“I am a person who works hard to save money through coupons — because I have to. For folks to whom every dime matters, the fee is a problem. Sometimes I’ll get a refund for my reusable bags at the grocery store, but not at self-checkout and not at drugstores,” Hodges said.
Then there are others who think the fee should be higher, like Clarissa Johnson from Astoria. She said it would encourage folks to remember to bring in their bags and change their habits.
But she also said it’s worth finding other creative alternatives instead of giving out thicker plastic bags. Like a crate deposit system, where you put the crate in your cart to shop around for your groceries.
“Something that is a little bit higher longevity, so you're not using those ‘reusable plastic bags’ that are really not that much better at all than single-use plastic bags,” Johnson said.
Under the law, retailers and restaurants don’t have to provide paper bags; they can provide thicker plastic bags instead if they meet the requirements of what a “reusable bag” is. If the plastic bag has the minimum requirement of 4 mils (the measurement to determine thickness), it is considered reusable.
Lawmakers and environmental groups that supported the bag law said while the thicker bags aren't ideal, they are less likely to blow into the environment and more likely to be reused.
“They’re able to create that [thicker plastic film] out of recycled content. Once you get down below four mils, most of that type of film is created from virgin plastics,” Surfrider’s Charlie Plybon said.
He said the thicker plastic bags also lend themselves for reuse.
Erica Cuesta, who has lived in Portland for the past 15 years, thinks otherwise. She forgot her reusable bags when she went to the store and had to buy the thicker plastic bag during checkout. She hasn’t reused the bag since.
“I left the bag at home, to be honest I didn’t even think to leave it in the car so it can be reused. I don’t think it's convenient to have them, just because they are thicker doesn't mean it will be used again,” Cuesta said.
As far as the fee per bag, Cuesta thinks it will make people more environmentally conscious and encourage them to make better decisions, which she thinks should be the real goal for the ban.
“The fee affects lower income families but you pay the same price for a drink at the store, the deposit for the bottle," she said. "Some people may just be upset that there is a fee and they don't see that this is for the environment, to help reduce plastic waste.”
Cuesta said the fee should be put towards environmental efforts and not left to retailers and restaurants to decide.
Surfrider’s Plybon said it’s going to take a little bit of time for Oregonians to adjust to the ban.
“This is a law that affects every single business in Oregon, it affects every single consumer in Oregon, so we’re talking about a law that really touches and reaches everyone and not all laws are like that,” Plybon said.
For the next few months, they will be looking at how people are adapting to the ban, what it means for the waste stream and what it means for consumers and businesses.
The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality will be collecting information from grocery stores on bag fees and customer usage. The agency will develop an impact report that will be submitted to lawmakers in 2025.