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Plastic bags damage our state

Two Views • Are plastic grocery bags a menace or recyclable convenience? Proposed ban generates brisk debate
by: L.E. BASKOW At a Far West Fibers sorting facility, about a quarter of workers’ time goes toward removing jammed plastic bags from the sort line and the machinery. Two My View writers discuss the pros and cons of a proposed plastic ban in Oregon.

Single-use plastic bags are a threat to Oregonians economically and environmentally. Supporting Senate Bill 536, which will eliminate single-use plastic bags at retail checkouts, will save Oregonians money and protect Oregon's river and coastal legacies.

In her book, 'Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash,' Elizabeth Royte estimates the average American uses 360 plastic bags each year. This means Oregonians are using upward of 1.2 billion single-use plastic bags each year. With numerous reusable bag alternatives available, there is no reason Oregonians should be partaking in this wasteful act.

Plastic bags are made from natural resources, including petroleum and natural gas, which are nonrenewable. These finite resources should be conserved and allotted for more important uses. Shuttling grocery items from the store to the car in a plastic bag is a mere convenience. Heating Oregon homes is a necessity.

Oregon is home to the Columbia River. Because it is the fourth-largest river in the United States and has the largest outpouring of water into the Pacific Ocean, Oregonians have a direct impact on ocean debris. While most Oregonians do not intentionally litter, the light, billowy nature of the plastic bags causes them to be easily blown from trash cans, landfills, cars and picnic areas, as well as being carried by streams and rivers.

Littered plastic bags are abundant on Oregon shores and can be fatal to marine wildlife. SOLV, Oregon's largest and longest-running coastal cleanup effort, finds plastic bags to be one of the most common types of litter found. The United Nations estimates that 100,000 marine mammals and 1 million sea birds die each year after ingesting or being tangled in plastics.

Plastics are not biodegradable. In the ocean, they break down into smaller pieces, which marine wildlife easily mistake for food. Scientists are studying the effects of plastics' organic pollutants and toxins accumulating in and possibly contaminating fish species. Fish are an integral part of the human food chain and comprise a large and valuable industry in Oregon.

A study from the California Ocean Protection Council found that 80 percent of plastic in the ocean comes from land-based sources. A bag ban policy, to mitigate unnecessary and unintentional plastic litter, is vital to preserving Oregon's beautiful and resource-rich marine environments and saving state dollars.

Another study, conducted by Californians Against Waste, shows that California spends $25 million annually to landfill discarded plastic bags, and public agencies spend more than $300 million annually in litter cleanup. Oregonians want to see state money spent on infrastructure, job creation and public schools- not on litter cleanups.

It is clear that the out-of-state plastic bag industry would like legislators to believe that recycling is the answer. Yet, the EPA reported in 2009 that roughly 3.8 million tons of plastic film waste was generated and only 9.4 percent of that total was recycled in the U.S.

With more plastic being generated in the past 10 years than the entire last century, do we really expect we can recycle our way out of this exponential growth in our waste stream?

Plastic bags are not accepted in curbside collection programs throughout Oregon. When plastic bags mistakenly enter the recovery stream, they produce costly tribulations for local material recovery facilities (MRFs).

Oregon's largest MRF chain, Far West Fibers, reports 25 to 30 percent of its total labor costs are spent on shutting down the recycling machinery and manually removing the jammed plastic bags and film. Jeff Murray, vice president of business development for Far West Fibers, says this process is the No. 1 cause of injuries on the job.

Protect Oregon industries, defend Oregonians from out-of-state interests, and also watch over state spending costs on litter removal and cleanup. Senate Bill 536 - by encouraging reuse - will eliminate plastic bags, a major source of the waste stream, and will ensure Oregon's landscapes, rivers, coasts and vital resources are protected for the use and enjoyment of us, visitors, and future generations.

Nastassja Pace is chair of the Surfrider Foundation's Portland chapter, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the protection and enjoyment of our world's oceans, waves and beaches.