Time to get rid of the Single-Use Plastic and Stop the Confusion Over Reusables!

It’s been almost a year since COVID-19 has upended our lives in ways we could never have imagined, from the ability to visit our loved ones to our capacity to work to how to safely shop at the grocery store. Yet, so much of the response to this public health crisis has been creating a public health crisis of its own: the epidemic of single-use plastics.

A Surfrider blog post from last March outlined why reusables are still safe, but in the initial anxiety and confusion of the pandemic, many governments hurriedly created new guidance that they thought would promote hygiene and safety, and in some cases that meant back-pedaling on reusable items and falling into the pit of single-use plastics. Orders came from the Governor’s office for local government to consider temporarily easing enforcement of the bag ban during the height of the pandemic. But no end date was put on that order. Currently, going to the store can be quite confusing. Within one neighborhood, you can go to a store that encourages you to BYO Bag, one that refuses your bags, and ones that vary depending on who is working there that particular day.

After nearly nearly a year of pandemic life, numerous peer-reviewed scientific papers have proven that reusables are still the way to go– hygienically, environmentally, and economically. The plastic industry leads people to believe that single-use is safer, but that is actually far from the truth. Our coalition friends at UPSTREAM have put together a great page on the safety of reusable items in the time of COVID (and beyond).

The State has issued the following guidance encouraging cities and counties to enforce the bag ban:

Reusable Bag Use
Retailers should accept reusable bags and consumers are encouraged to use them. Retailers and consumers should follow the recommendations outlined by the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) Food Safety Program. Click here to link to the ODA guidance. 

Immediate Enforcement of Minimum 5-cent Check-out Bag Charge
All retail establishments shall charge a minimum of five cents for paper and other checkout bags provided to the customer. Cities and counties are encouraged to enforce this provision of the law.

Temporary Enforcement Discretion for Allowable Bags through June 30, 2021 
Some stores continue to experience limited supplies of paper bags and reusable bags. Cities and counties tasked with enforcement are encouraged to take these circumstances into consideration when the supply shortage is demonstrated to be out of the retailer’s control. During this state of emergency, where limited supplies are demonstrated, cities and counties are encouraged to work with retailers to seek alternative solutions. In some cases, this may include cities and counties temporarily suspending enforcement activities for the use of single- use plastic bags and the related civil penalties. In such circumstances, public postings should be encouraged at retail establishments to minimize customer confusion and potential complaints. 

What can YOU do?

The science and the law are clear. But unfortunately, it falls on local government to enforce the statewide ban and that is much easier said than done. So this is where YOU come in to help demand this policy be upheld!

Continue to Bring and Use Your Own Bags: Bring your own bags into stores. Model hygienic  and respectful behavior as you shop. Retailers and consumers should follow the guidelines outlined by the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) Food Safety Program. If someone gives you grief about it, be prepared to pull up the information on the bag ban and the statement requiring cities to enforce it. Have a few facts on hand about why reusable bags are not actually a threat. Reference other stores that are complying with the ban. As a cashier or clerk most likely will feel powerless to make a decision or go against store policy, it is best to speak to a manager or customer service.

Talk to Businesses: Although local governments are required to enforce the ban, they are extremely overwhelmed at this point and also not always aware of the science. That is why it is crucial that educated citizens like YOU step in. If you know a store or restaurant that is not complying with the ban, you can encourage compliance by contacting the manager and educating them that bag ban is still in place and that governments have been directed to start enforcing it again. You can also print and deliver this guidance document to the store. Be aware that some businesses have applied for a “hardship,” which gives them an exception from enforcement. If a business claims they have an approved hardship, you can ask for proof of that waiver. It is important that these calls come from you as a customer, not as a representative of an organization.

Post Photos of Plastic Bags Littering the Environment: See a bag from WalMart or some other recognizable business floating in the breeze or caught in the bushes? Take a photo of it and post it to social media.  Be sure to tag the offending business!

Educate your Community: Talk to your friends and neighbors about this issue! Serve as a model to your community and help people get the facts on Oregon’s Single-Use Bag Ban and the benefits of reusable bags!

If all else fails….

File a non-compliance complaint: It is the job of these businesses to cater to their customers. If they don’t like what they’re hearing from you, the next step would be to report a violation to either your city or county.  Each jurisdiction has its own method for reporting complaints, which can typically be found by googling “code enforcement” or “compliance” and the specific location.

Write Letters to City Council: Find the contact information for your local city officials and compose a letter or email telling your story. Why is this issue important to you? Why should it be addressed by your city? Your letter should be written in a formal style and should include as much information as possible about the nature of your complaint and how you would like the situation to be resolved. Remember to include your address and the location of the problem if it occurs elsewhere.

The Bottom Line
  • Reusable bags are STILL SAFE in the time of COVID.
  • Grocery stores and restaurants are required to follow Oregon’s Single-Use Plastic Bag Ban.
  • Many businesses are being non-compliant due to a variety of reasons including lack of knowledge and lack of enforcement.
  • YOU have the power as a consumer to talk to managers and educate them.
  • YOU have the ability to take action in your community!