One Small Way to Get Back at BP

Evan Manvel

When I travel and eat out, I’m amazed to receive leftovers in a Styrofoam container. I have a visceral negative reaction, and the experience never fails to remind me that I’m glad to be a Portlander, where Styrofoam to-go containers are banned. When we travel in a couple of years, will we have the same surprised reaction to receiving a plastic bag at checkout?

Aiming to protect the environment and marine life, Mayor Sam Adams is working to ban certain plastic bags. He also mentions an interesting side point – we'd save money in sewer fees, which are higher because plastic bags clog the sewer system). Senators Hass and Atkinson are working on a statewide bill. While the grocery store lobby has found a way to support the ban (five cents of income per paper bag, and only some plastic bags banned), it’s unlikely that the plastics lobby will knuckle under without a fight. It may even come to a referendum.

Polling from Grove Insight finds Portlanders support the proposal when the reasons for it are explained, by a 61-31% margin. But it's important to remember the plastics lobby poured $1.4 million into a campaign to overturn Seattle’s 20-cent plastic bag fee, outspending supporters 20-to-1 and killing the ordinance on a 53-47% vote. As Seattle proper has about the same number of voters as Portland proper, you could see a similar sized campaign here. Given we’re used to $150,000 campaigns for city races, it would be fascinating – and dispiriting – to see a campaign ninefold that size.

Of course, the BP disaster is fresh in our minds, reminding Americans of the importance of ocean health and the consequences of our oil addiction. And one member of the American Chemistry Council, i.e. the plastics lobby who spends millions to protect the billions they make from plastic bags? None other than BP Lubricants.

Brock Howell, Charlie Plybon and Stiv Wilson argue for the ban in today’s Oregonian. They point out plastic bags make up twelve percent of Oregon’s marine debris. Millions of fish, birds, and marine mammals have been killed over the years by plastics. And our five-minute convenience can have consequences for hundreds of years.

Unfortunately, it appears the grocery lobby’s efforts to limit the Portland ordinance to the parameters of the state proposal are paying off. The lobbying technique - choosing a location where the bar won’t be set high, and with standards that are easy to meet – requires people to believe having a Portland standard different from the Oregon standard is a hardship. As Portland’s population is almost as big as that of some states, it seems our market is big enough to handle stronger standards. For example, why are we only applying this ordinance to large pharmacies and grocery stores with more than $2 million in sales?

Will Portland and Oregon once again step up and lead? Seattle’s City Council is unbowed by the defeat of their fee and is proposing a ban. California lawmakers are considering a statewide ban. Hundreds of jurisdictions across the earth have taken on their responsibility when it comes to plastic bags.

Will we take ours?

More about Mayor Adams’ draft Portland ordinance

More about the Seattle effort

Help with the Portland campaign

Help with the statewide campaign

And heck, the all-time standard bearer of plastics.

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    Banning the bag is one of the simplest ways the city of Portland and state of Oregon can begin the task of shifting our economy away from oil, and diverting the dollars from companies like BP. Mayor Adams is to be commended for his work on this issue, as are Senators Hass and Atkinson at the state level. Let's get plastic bags out of our grocery stores - and out of our parks and oceans, too!

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    And, at last, there's a bit of a hopeful prospective as regards what's going on in the oceans- turns out that, if the influx of plastic into the ocean (the north Pacific, specifically) is greatly reduced, the gyre will eventually kick the debris out and onto the beaches around the Pacific, where we can pick it up (a la SOLV).

    Of course we have a very long ways to go to make significant progress on practically eliminating the Texas-sized north Pacific garbage patch (which is killing hundreds of thousands of birds and other wildlife, annually), but this and similar measures will be a great start.


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