Oregon legislature and OSPIRG take on single-use styrofoam

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Alyssa Gilbert, the chapter chair for the University of Oregon OSPIRG, looks through different posters and signs that have been created by the group. UO OSPIRG is fighting to ban polystyrene food containers in the state of Oregon. (Madi Mather/Emerald)

A bill in the Oregon state legislature intended to ban polystyrene takeout containers moved on to the Oregon State Senate after initially failing in the House on Earth Day.

HB 2883, if made law, would bar food vendors from selling or providing polystyrene, or styrofoam, to the public. The bill passed the House with 32 votes on April 23, with 28 no votes. The victory in the House comes as Maine passed a similar ban on May 1, the first state to do so.

The proposed legislation has the backing of student activist organization OSPIRG Students, who have been working this year to achieve such a ban.

 

“This has been our lead campaign for this term and last term,” said Alyssa Gilbert, chapter head at the University of Oregon. Gilbert explained that OSPIRG partnered with OSPIRG State (a state activist non-profit) and Environment Oregon to champion the legislation.

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Alyssa Gilbert (right), chapter chair, and Liv Meyer (left), chapter secretary. The UO OSPIRG chapter is fighting to ban polystyrene food containers in the state of Oregon. (Madi Mather/Emerald)

“There’s more awareness around these environmental issues now,” said Representative Sheri Schouten (D-Beaverton), the chief sponsor of the legislation. She said that advocating for the legislation was about improving population health considering the environmental impact of polystyrene.

“For the last 30-plus years, I was a public health nurse,” Schouten said. “We look beyond what’s good for one patient, we look at a broader view of public health, and one of things that affects that is the environment.”

“We chose to focus on polystyrene because it’s the worst of the worst when it comes to single use plastics,” Gilbert said. “Polystyrene will never break down. It turns into microplastics, and they are actually in all the water we drink every day and all the food that we’re eating.”

Along with door-to-door canvassing and gathering student petitions on campus, the OSPIRG coalition lobbied in Salem and made phone calls to representatives after the House bill initially failed. Gilbert said that to date  over 1,300 petition signatures were collected from Eugene students alone.

On the bill’s early failure, Schouten said that Republicans and several Democrats opposed it on its first try, and that some opposition may have come from the misconception that the bill would be targeting polystyrene in all forms, not just takeout containers.

Schouten emphasized that the bill wouldn’t affect anyone outside of food vendors and expressed hope for a positive change influenced by consumer awareness of the negative aspects of polystyrene.

“We’re not interested in punishing people, we didn’t want to set up a polystyrene police. We would like them to change because that’s what people expect in the modern world,” Schouten said.

According to the bill’s summary, it would allow the Department of Environmental Quality to impose civil penalties of up to $250 per day for vendors who use polystyrene.

Gilbert explained that OSPIRG in Eugene spoke before and worked with the Eugene city council on the polystyrene ban, with the city eventually endorsing the statewide bill.

The council has been discussing an ordinance to restrict the distribution of single-use plastics like straws and condiment packaging, with a public hearing to be held on May 13. According to a report by the Register-Guard, the council will delay working on a polystyrene container ban until the legislative outcome is known.

“[It] means a lot,” Gilbert said of the endorsement. “Even if the statewide bill doesn’t pass, they’ll ban it in Eugene, and then the statewide politicians see the City of Eugene endorsed the bill, and big number of constituents live in this area, that puts a lot of pressure on them.”

If made law, the state bill will take effect Jan. of 2021.