Oregon lawmakers ban EPS, boost reusable packaging
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Oregon lawmakers ban EPS, boost reusable packaging

Jul 05, 2023

The Oregon Legislature passed two measures April 26 aimed at controlling plastic waste: a ban on expanded polystyrene foodservice products, packing peanuts and coolers, along with a second bill to boost reusable packaging.

Industry groups opposing the EPS ban had urged legislators, without success, to hold off while state agencies write detailed rules implementing Oregon's new extended producer responsibility law. That EPR law covers EPS materials and is expected to make major changes to recycling programs.

"Polystyrene bans are misguided with no proven track record," said Betsy Bowers, executive director of the EPS Industry Alliance.

However, environmental groups in Oregon said the EPS ban is necessary because the material isn't recyclable in curbside programs and the lightweight foam can break up easily in the environment.

The group Oceana said EPS is one of the top pollutants found on the state's beaches. Oregon is the 10th state to pass EPS restrictions. Oregon's EPS ban comes after one chamber in the Illinois Legislature, its House, passed an EPS foodservice product ban in March, but the measure has not moved through the state Senate.

"The only way to head off this crisis is to start reducing the amount of plastic we create, use and throw away, and to start doing that as quickly as possible," said Tara Brock, Oceana's Pacific counsel.

Some state senators linked the EPS and reusable packaging measures, saying they work in tandem. The EPS ban bill also restricts fluorinated perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) chemicals in packaging.

The reuse bill would make it easier for restaurants to offer hygienic reusable and refillable containers as an alternative to single-use plastics and packaging.

"Products that have a 'forever' impact on our planet, like polystyrene foam, which doesn't biodegrade, and PFAS forever chemicals that build up in our bodies and environment, should be eliminated," said Sen. Janeen Sollman, D-Hillsboro. "As we move away from these wasteful and harmful plastic products, we should make it easier for Oregon businesses to offer reusable options to help make the zero waste future we are working to build a reality."

The reusable container bill directs the Oregon Health Authority to update the state's health code to make it simpler for restaurants to use refillable containers.

In February, the Oregon Department of Agriculture adopted similar rules making it easier for the grocery stores, co-ops and retailers it regulates to offer sanitary reusable and refillable containers.

"As a legislator, I'm working on practical ways for people and businesses to use their own reusable containers to further limit use of single-use plastics across Oregon," said Rep. Tom Andersen, D-Salem. "Businesses and their customers need more ways to incorporate reuse systems to cut waste, save money and protect our planet."

Both measures passed the state House April 26, with the EPS ban on a 40-18 vote and the reusables legislation on a 38-18 vote. They both passed the state Senate earlier and now head to the desk of Gov. Tina Kotek, a Democrat.

The EPS and PFAS measure, known as Senate Bill 543, would take effect Jan. 1, 2025.

A coalition of industry groups — including the American Chemistry Council, the Plastics Industry Association and the Consumer Brands Association — urged lawmakers to let the state's EPR law fully take effect before passing the EPS ban. That law will see businesses pay fees to support recycling.

"Compliance with the EPR law will cost the business community millions," the group wrote to lawmakers in April. "Limiting packaging options available to restaurants will reduce supply and further drive up costs."

The group also included packaging makers Dart Container Corp. and Pactiv Evergreen Inc.

Bowers said state lawmakers ignored work the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality is doing to implement the EPR law, including looking at life cycle analysis and surveying residential recycling programs.

She said the EPR program has put block EPS foam on a list of materials eligible for future drop-off sites.

"It is ineffective to pass legislation that overrides existing laws that haven't even had time to be implemented," Bowers said. "Is anyone paying attention?"

She said polystyrene food packaging recycling faces challenges common to recycling other materials with food residue.

Next door in Washington state, legislators recently passed a modest reuse bill that also phases out small plastic personal care containers in hotels and takes aim at foam-filled floats used for boat and recreational docks.

The legislation, which also requires any new building constructed with water fountains to also install bottle refill stations, passed in early April. Gov. Jay Inslee signed it April 20.

One of the chief sponsors of the law, state Rep. Sharlett Mena, D-Tacoma, said it would reduce microplastic pollution.

"This [law] helps us chip away at plastic pollution in three simple ways: reducing unnecessary packaging in hotels and motels, cutting down on plastic water bottles by making more places to fill reusable water bottles, and by banning polystyrene foam from being used for docks unless it is adequately covered," Mena said. "This will help prevent those little microplastics from getting into the water and cut down on unnecessary plastic waste."

The law would restrict soft film-covered floats and mandate a study of whether the hard shells of EPS foam docks can "securely" contain the foam.

"Foam fragments have made it to the top five items that volunteers remove from our beaches each year since we started counting in 2015," said Pete Steelquist, Washington policy manager for the Surfrider Foundation. "Foam docks are a slow drip of toxic foam directly into our coastal waters."

Oceana noted that the San Diego City Council passed a measure in December prohibiting polystyrene foam docks and navigational buoys unless they are covered by a nonpolystyrene material.

But opponents of the Washington law told lawmakers that transitioning to other types of dock floats, like air-filled versions, would cause more waste because those products have a shorter lifespan. They noted the economic impact from recreational boating in the state. As well, according to a summary of testimony prepared by legislative staff, foam floats are preferred in the marine industry because they require less maintenance and aren't rendered immediately unusable if punctured.

"It would be more reasonable to focus restrictions on soft-shell foam floats, which are more likely to release foam into the environment," the summary said.

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