Plastic Bag Ban, Bottle Bill Get Last-Minute Green Lights

Two of this session's prominent bills involve plastic products. Last week both of them – the plastic bag ban and the Bottle Bill expansion – barely squeaked out of committee before a deadline that would have rendered them dead this session.

Senate Bill 536, the plastic bag ban, moved out the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee on a party-line vote. It didn't quite make it to the Senate floor, where the vote count is 15-15. Instead, Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, referred it to Senate Rules, which isn't subject to deadlines to move bills.

The battle over SB 536 pits the plastics industry against environmental groups and grocers, such as Safeway and Fred Meyer, which are the main proponents of the bill. Grocers are eager to head off municipal limits on plastic bags that would create a piecemeal system of plastic bag bans and taxes, resulting, they say, in a bureaucratic nightmare for them to navigate.

Grocers prefer to give out plastic bags because they are less expensive than paper bags. SB 536 contains a provision to require grocers to collect a 5-cent fee on paper bags. The ultimate goal is to encourage shoppers to use reusable bags.

Environmental groups support the bill because plastic bags are a common source of litter and create problems for wildlife. Plastic bags are expensive to recycle and muck up recyclers' sorting machines, so there is no easy way for consumers to recycle them.

The plastics industry, led by Texas-based Hilex Poly, insists plastic bags are easy to recycle. Company officials told Senator Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, chief sponsor of the ban, they would install a plastic bag recycling facility in Oregon if he backed away from his bill.

House Bill 3145 expands the Bottle Bill to include more beverage containers and sets up a new regime for redeeming the deposit. The legislature wants to move toward a redemption center system, where any grocer within a 1.5-mile-radius "zone of convenience" would pay a fee to operate a local redemption center instead of collecting the beverage containers on site.

The bill creates a pilot project for redemption centers, and it has a mechanism to entice retailers to participate. Currently grocers such as Fred Meyer and Safeway process the bulk of returned bottles and cans, while some larger retailers do not actively participate in the redemption process. With the redemption center pilot project, retailers who don't participate will have to offer same services as redemption centers, including hand-counted bottle returns.

One key feature of redemption centers is consumer convenience. Many consumers are fed up with the current system (think standing outside in winter stuffing containers one by one in inexplicably slow reverse vending machines). At redemption centers, consumers can set up accounts, drop off their bottles and cans, and redemption center staff will count the containers and credit the consumer's debit account.

Amendments are in the works to expand and streamline the definition of beverages included in the bottle deposit system. The amendments would put a five-cent deposit on "potable beverages" in containers between four ounces and three liters. The expansion includes sports drinks, tea and juices, but it doesn't kick in until 60 percent of redemption occurs at redemption centers, or in 2018.

Environmental groups also included a provision that bumps the deposit to 10 cents if redemption rates fall below 80 percent for two consecutive years.

HB 3145 passed out of the House Energy, Environment and Water Committee and was sent to the House floor. House members voted to send the bill to the Rules Committee to work out the last few amendments.