PORTLAND, Oregon, November 18, 2012 (ENS) - Portland City Council voted unanimously Thursday to expand the plastic bag ban in Oregon's largest city to include all retailers and restaurants.
The expansion of the existing one-year-old ban on single-use plastic checkout bags will happen in two phases. The first phase goes into effect on March 1, 2013 and will cover retail establishments and food providers with stores larger than 10,000 square feet.
By October 1, 2013, all other retailers and food providers can only provide recycled paper bags or reusable bags.
Plastic bags can still be used to wrap meat and anything that might contaminate other purchases. Plastic bags also will be allowed to cover clothes coming from a dry cleaner. Durable plastic bags at least four thousandths of an inch in thickness will still be allowed.
The existing bag ban only applies to about 200 stores. When fully implemented, the expanded ban will affect an estimated 5,000 restaurants and retailers, including farmers markets and corner stores and Portland's hundreds of food carts.
Four individuals entered Thursday's council meeting dressed as "bag monsters," each costumed with about 500 plastic bags to dramatize the need for the expansion.
Environment Oregon delivered over 3,000 petitions of support for a better bag ban, and helped enlist the support of dozens of businesses. At the council meeting, local businesses such as Bamboo Sushi, Boke Bowl and GoBox testified in support of the expansion.
Advocacy groups Environment Oregon, Surfrider Foundation, Oregon League of Voters, Willamette Riverkeeper, Tualatin Riverkeepers, Oceana, Portland Audubon Society, and Oregon Shores support the expanded ban.
The Northwest Grocers Association and the American Forest and Paper Association also offered their support. The initiative came from outgoing Portland Mayor Sam Adams.
"Mayor Sam Adams should be applauded for leading the way in protecting our oceans and Oregon's waterways," said Sarah Higginbotham, state director at Environment Oregon. "With thousands of Portlanders calling for a better bag ban, City Commissioners responded and took meaningful action."
In October, the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability presented a one-year report to City Council highlighting the results of the City's initial policy that required most grocery stores and large stores with pharmacies to provide only recycled paper bags or reusable bags to customers. The report showed reusable checkout bag use has increased over 300 percent since the ban went into effect.
As a result, fewer plastic bags will litter Portland's neighborhoods and natural areas. Portland joins other Western cities including Corvallis, Eugene, San Francisco, and Seattle in banning all retailers and restaurants from distributing single-use plastic bags.
Ban advocates say the expansion will even the playing field and ensure that all retailers and food providers in Portland are subject to the same regulation.
As part of the ordinance, the City Council declared that "an emergency exists because the on-going use of single-use plastic shopping bags is harmful to the public health and welfare."
But Mark Daniels, who chairs the American Progressive Bag Alliance, an organization representing the United States' plastic bag manufacturing and recycling sector, says the expanded ban will throw people out of work and have a negative impact on the environment.
"The expansion of Portland's bag ban will continue to have a negative impact on consumers, and, ironically, the environment," said Daniels.
"Portland residents will be forced to purchase even more reusable bags which cannot be recycled, are predominately imported from China, and have been proven to harbor dangerous bacteria," Daniels said.
"Those interested in real solutions to reducing litter and protecting the environment should pursue scientifically sound, common sense policies - ones that encourage a comprehensive statewide recycling solution that address all forms of plastic bags, sacks and wraps," he said, "instead of targeting one product that makes up a fraction of a percent of the waste stream."
But environmental advocates say that Oregonians use approximately 1.7 billion plastic bags each year; most are not recycled but are swept out to sea where they wreak environmental havoc.
"There are 100 million tons of trash in the North Pacific Gyre; in some parts of the Pacific, plastic outweighs plankton six to one," says Environment Oregon.
Turtles and seabirds frequently ingest floating plastic, mistaking it for food. They also get entangled in bags and often drown or die of suffocation.
Adult seabirds inadvertently feed small bits of plastic to their chicks, causing them to starve to death after their stomachs become filled with plastic.
Toxic pollutants leach from the plastic into the water. Scientists are now studying whether fish and other marine animals absorb these toxic pollutants. If so, there is a good chance that humans also absorb them from fish meals.
"The scary truth is that scientists tell us this plastic may never biodegrade," said Higginbotham. "The problem is too enormous and the solution is just too simple to wait any longer."
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2012. All rights reserved.
Cover photo: Four plastic bag monsters attend the Portland City Council meeting, November 15, 2012 (Photo courtesy Mayor Sam Adams)