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Oregon Legislature passes ban on foam food containers

FILE: A Styrofoam container is shown with take out food.
Manuel Balce Ceneta
FILE: A Styrofoam container is shown with take out food.

Restaurants throughout Oregon will need to ditch to-go containers made of plastic foam by 2025, under a bill headed to Gov. Tina Kotek’s desk.

Senate Bill 543, long a priority for Oregon environmental groups, cleared the state House on a 40-18 vote Wednesday. The bill bans food vendors from serving meals in containers made of polystyrene foam, commonly known as Styrofoam. It also prohibits businesses from using or selling foam packing peanuts or single-use foam coolers. The Senate approved the bill in early April.

Nine cities in Oregon already have local policies prohibiting foam containers, but SB 543′s advocates say a blanket ban is needed. They note that foam products aren’t accepted by curbside recycling programs, are often littered and break easily down into small pieces that are difficult to pick up.

“Whether along a river, a highway or our beautiful beaches, single-use plastics are the predominant waste we clean up,” said state Rep. Maxine Dexter, D-Portland, a chief sponsor of the bill. “It’s everywhere, it’s ugly and it’s doing harm.”

SB 543 also bans vendors from using containers that include what are known as PFAS, the so-called “forever chemicals” that can make material like cardboard resistant to grease. PFAS don’t readily break downand have beenlinked to some cancers, high cholesterol and decreases in infant birth weight.

The bill imposes fines ranging from $100 to $500 a day for those who distribute banned products. It does not affect the use of some Styrofoam containers, including the packaging used to ship and store food that has not been prepared to eat, like egg cartons.

Oregon environmental organizations have pushed a Styrofoam packaging ban for years. In 2019, a similar bill appeared likely to succeed, but wound up getting shot down when some moderate Democrats joined Republicans in opposition. The makeup of both chambers is far different today, and SB 543 had a comparably easy path, winning bipartisan majorities in both chambers.

“This bill is a feel-good bill that protects our environment, and it’s an easy bill to vote yes on,” state Rep. Virgil Osborne, R-Roseburg, said Wednesday. Osborne nevertheless cautioned that Oregon needs to ensure foam packaging is replaced by containers that are less environmentally harmful.

Restaurant and grocer groups were neutral on SB 543, but the bill has seen opposition from industry groups. They argued a ban would add another unneeded layer of regulation onto a 2021 law that will require producers of plastic packaging to take responsibility for their products — and fund programs to safely dispose of them.

If Kotek signs the bill, Oregon will join eight other states, including Washington, that ban some foam containers.

The House on Wednesday also passed SB 545, which directs the Oregon Health Authority to create rules that give restaurants the option of accepting reusable containers when packaging food to-go. The bill is designed to further reduce the use of single-use plastic packaging.

Dirk VanderHart covers Oregon politics and government for KLCC. Before barging onto the radio in 2018, he spent more than a decade as a newspaper reporter—much of that time reporting on city government for the Portland Mercury. He’s also had stints covering chicanery in Southwest Missouri, the wilds of Ohio in Ohio, and all things Texas on Capitol Hill.