Perpetual Plastics

Eugene proposes zero-waste laws, but activists claim there is a lack of enforcement

In an effort to limit the use of plastics in Eugene, the City Council is moving forward to create new laws promoting zero waste with a proposed ordinance on polystyrene. Activists, though, are criticizing the city’s enforcement of previous plastics laws.

The city has passed several ordinances over the last few years, due in part to ideas activists proposed to the council. On Oct. 31, the city is set to introduce a law that will most likely seek to ban polystyrene, which is commonly known as Styrofoam. Local zero-waste advocates are concerned about how the city will enforce it.

The new ordinance is expected to follow the same language as a state bill that attempted and failed to ban polystyrene earlier this year, climate lawyer and member of the group Citizens for Responsible use of Plastics Pete Frost says. The statewide ban failed due to a deadlock on party lines, but Frost says he believes the City Council will pass a ban easily. 

“I think it’s a good council who wants to do the right thing,” Frost says. “The community needs to continue to apply pressure to make sure the council goes the right way.”

The push behind banning polystyrene is rooted in numerous studies that show it contains toxic chemicals such as styrene and benzene. Both chemicals can lead to health complications involving nervous, respiratory and reproductive systems. Many cities, including Portland and Seattle and, in Lane County, Florence, have banned the use of polystyrene.

 The polystyrene ordinance follows a single-use restriction that went into effect in May. This law required customers to consent to taking single-use service ware items — such as plastic utensils, condiment packets and straws — instead of automatically providing the items. The ordinance is clear that this isn’t a ban, but a restriction. City Waste Prevention and Green Building Analyst Anna Reid says single-use items now require intentionality from the customer.  

“We are not imposing a fee, just a change of placement,” Reid says.

The single-use law has been in effect for a few months, but some activists are questioning the communication from the city regarding the ordinance and its enforcement. 

Jim Flynn is a zero-waste advocate and is also a member of Citizens for Responsible Use of Plastics, working with the group to present suggestions to the city. He says that although the single-use restriction is not the plan the group originally proposed, it is still a good idea in theory. But Flynn says he and the group are disappointed in the city’s lack of enforcement. He says he has seen businesses around town that have either provided single-use items without consent, or had them sitting out. 

“We are severely disappointed to find out nothing happened, nothing has changed,” he says.

If restaurants and other establishments don’t comply with the single-use ordinance, they are subject to a fine up to $500 depending on the number of violations within a calendar year. The violations are monitored based on complaints. 

To educate providers of single-use items, Reid says a letter went out to businesses last week that are affected by the single-use ordinance and covers key pieces on what the law says.

“This is giving them clarity and giving them my name and contact information for a resource,” Reid says. The city also has a printable PDF on the website for business owners to use as a reference or pass onto customers. Eugene has compliance monitors whose job is to help city laws. She adds that the city is not going around trying to bust people and is seeking to educate rather than getting businesses in trouble.

“We respond to complaints coming in,” Reid says. “We have to hear about it first and are encouraging folks who are out there to let us know.”

With the upcoming polystyrene ordinance, Flynn says he expects the ban to pass easily, but it won’t matter if it isn’t enforced properly.

“If you don’t enforce it, it’s meaningless,” he says. “We are handing you bills but you have to go a step further and actually enforce what you are doing.”

Once the language for the new ordinance on polystyrene is released, it will be open for comment until the City Council meeting Nov. 18, where the council will vote on the ordinance. Reid says the city is encouraging public insight and comment for this next step in making Eugene more sustainable.