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As Portland considers a ban on plastic shopping bags,….

In his defeat, state Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, sees victory. True, the 2011 Legislature

adjourned last month without a statewide measure restricting plastic bags at Oregon checkout counters, an effort Hass championed. And, true, that failure ushered in what is expected to be a series of votes on individual — and possibly conflicting — local measures, starting with Portland’s vote Thursday on a proposed ban.

But more Oregonians now recognize plastic bags have consequences for the environment, Hass argued Tuesday.

“There’s been an evolution on this debate,” Hass said. “Nobody denies that there’s a problem. It’s now a question of how do we solve this?”

As the setting for that discussion shifts from the Legislature to local jurisdictions, Portland becomes the testing ground for consumer behavior under such a ban, and its experience could shape future measures in other cities and at the state level.

City commissioners Amanda Fritz, Randy Leonard and Nick Fish all say they plan to approve the ban introduced by Mayor Sam Adams. Only Commissioner Dan Saltzman declined to say how he will vote, though he has backed other such environmental causes.

Portland’s new restrictions, which would take effect Oct. 15, seek to eliminate plastic checkout bags at grocers with $2 million or more in annual gross sales and at retailers with pharmacies and at least 10,000 square feet. It would exempt plastic bags used for produce, bulk food and meat. Also, pharmacists could use plastic bags for privacy reasons.

Unlike the now defunct statewide measure, there would be no mandatory fee on paper bags at checkouts to push shoppers to reusable bags. But nothing in Portland’s ordinance would prevent businesses from charging for paper sacks anyway.

Momentum is already building elsewhere.

Newport Mayor Mark McConnell said he would give “a serious look” at Portland’s ban as his city considers its own approach to the issue. Keeping plastic bags off Newport’s coastline is a priority, he said. “The beaches are our main attraction,” McConnell said.

Elected leaders in several other cities, including Beaverton and Lake Oswego, have indicated they could soon take up the cause, too. It’s too early to say whether those cities’ proposals might include mandatory fees or other unique features.

That makes grocers and plastic bag manufacturers grumble.

Facing a possible statewide band, Fred Meyer pre-emptively eliminated plastic bags at its 10 Portland stores in August 2010. Then in December, a Fred Meyer representative testified before a Senate committee in Salem that taking plastic bags away from customers only pushed them to use paper sacks.

When it still had plastic bags at its Portland checkouts, Fred Meyer handed out 2.1 million paper bags during one five-month period last year. But it gave away more than double that number of paper bags after the switch, significantly driving up its cost of providing shopping bags without eliminating the waste.

“We really only shifted the problem from one disposable bag to another,” Mike Ellis, president of Fred Meyer, told lawmakers at the Senate hearing.

Yet Fred Meyer’s customers applauded the store’s decision to get rid of plastic shopping bags in Portland, said Melinda Merrill, a Fred Meyer spokeswoman.

Representatives for the American Chemistry Council and Hilex Poly, a major manufacturer of natural gas-based plastic bags, continue to lobby for recycling solutions rather than outright bans. New facilities for processing plastic bags would have the additional benefit of capturing other forms of plastic waste, they contend.

“Portland is missing an opportunity to lead the way in reducing plastics litter and creating green jobs through a comprehensive plastics recycling program,” reads a July 19 letter to the mayor from Hilex Poly’s lobbyist in Portland, Greg Peden. “By making recycling available and accessible to Oregonians across the state, we can reduce litter more effectively than a piecemeal approach that is targeted only at plastic check-out bags.”

A spokeswoman for the mayor, Amy Ruiz, said Portland has yet to see any tangible results of such pledges from the plastics industry.


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