Legislators approved a bill last week that would ban plastic bags from Oregon shops, restaurants and stores. While environmental advocates are calling it a win, it wouldn't have been possible without the work of a group of high school students from Hillsboro, who pitched the idea first to their local city council, and later, to state lawmakers.
This month, the Oregon Senate approved House Bill 2509, which bans plastic checkout bags at stores and restaurants statewide starting next year. The bill is awaiting Gov. Kate Brown's signature to become law.
The bill is similar to a citywide ban on plastic bags which went into effect this month in Hillsboro. Hillsboro's ban — officially known as the Sustainable Shopping Initiative — served as a model for the statewide bill and was spearheaded by Hillsboro's Youth Advisory Council, a group of high school students who volunteer with the city to tackle issues related to young people. The group organizes an annual TEDx conference in Hillsboro and promote civic engagement with events.
Students on the YAC have been studying the issue for years. When the students proposed the idea to city leaders last year, it was the first time the city's YAC has made a policy proposal to the council.
"Environmental issues impact youth more than any other age group, because we're the ones who have to inherit it," said YAC member Ryan Smith, 16, an incoming senior at Glencoe High School. "But we have the least amount of power in the political system. We can't vote. But to have a voice in a policy that's going to impact our future is incredible."
The ban went into effect in Hillsboro this month, barring plastic bags from grocery store checkouts, restaurants and major retailers. Smaller businesses will have until 2020 to make the switch away from plastic bags.
Glencoe High School senior Luda Isakharov, 17, said it's important for young people to get involved.
"We had multiple policy ideas we were looking at," she said. "It's our future, and it's the environment we'll be living with."
The students met with representatives from other cities to learn how they had tackled the issue before presenting their ideas to the City Council.
"We used what they said as inspiration," Isakharov said. "We wanted to take the things they regretted, what works, what didn't, and make ours the optimal policy."
The road to Salem
The ban attracted the attention of Hillsboro state Rep. Janeen Sollman, who encouraged the students to think bigger.
"The caliber of these students is incredible," Sollman said. "… this wasn't the city coming to them for their opinion, it's them saying, 'This is our city, too. We feel passionate about this and we're going to show you the research and work behind this to bring positive change.'"
Several Oregon cities have already banned plastic bags in one form or another. Salem passed a ban last year, and Portland has a partial ban. Forest Grove banned plastic bags in 2017.
"People wanted consistency," Sollman said. "It's hard to have a store in one part of the state which has to follow one rule, and others in another part have to follow another."
Sollman told the Tribune she was impressed with the work that Hillsboro students put into the project, holding community surveys, connecting with local grocers and the Hillsboro Chamber of Commerce.
"They did the work," she said.
Sollman was so passionate about the project, according to YAC advisor Kristi Wilson, that she showed up late to her own re-election party in November so she could testify and support the Hillsboro students with the Hillsboro City Council.
"She was there the day it passed (the City Council) and she told us, 'Next is statewide,'" Isakharov said. "We laughed, but she meant it."
Using the Hillsboro ban as a model, Sollman took the ban to Salem. She worked with the Hillsboro students, who testified before lawmakers and wrote letters in support of the statewide ban.
Since they were introduced into widespread use in the 1970s, plastic bags have risen in popularity at the expense of paper. One study suggested that Americans used more than 100 billion single-use plastic shopping bags in 2014. According to the city of Hillsboro, customers at Hillsboro business use 44 million plastic bags each year. Fewer than 10% of those bags are recycled appropriately.
"Single-use plastics, in general, are polluting our state and our planet," said Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton.
Not the end
The bill wasn't met with universal acclaim. Most Republicans opposed the statewide ban, as well as two other bills that aimed to curb plastics the Legislature studied this year. Some argued that paper alternatives to plastic bags are inferior.
Notably, the bag bill requires grocers to sell checkout bags for a nickel each. Proponents said that addition was meant to encourage people to turn to reusable bags instead of paper.
Sen. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas, said banning single-use plastic bags is a good idea, but the fee will have "unintended consequences."
"We continue … to think we cannot educate our people and we must punish them by fining them, punish them by raising costs, instead of actually talking to our citizens rationally," Boquist said, arguing that adding a mandatory fee on paper bags would reduce their usage and hurt paper mills and recycling centers.
Smith said it's hard to believe that an idea YAC members had for their city could be making such a big impact statewide.
"It's cool, because we're actually making changes that benefit the environment, but it's also cool that youth, the people most impacted by this, actually can make a difference in what happens now," he said.
It's not uncommon for cities to have some sort of youth advisory group. Smith said he hopes they serve as an inspiration for high school students across the state.
"What we're doing now has the potential to be used by lots of other cities to follow in these footsteps," Smith said.
Patrick Preston, a spokesman with the city of Hillsboro, said it's encouraging to see young people take such initiative to make changes in their community.
"The Youth Advisory Council isn't intended to be an effort that's futile; it's intended to be substantive," he said. "This is a great example of that work moving forward."
Smith said this likely won't be the last policy YAC takes to the city. The group has taken a break for the summer, but the youth have already started considering several other issues to tackle, such as homelessness.
Whether those suggestions become city policy or state law is yet to be seen, but Sollman said she won't be surprised if they do.
"I'm really proud of them," Sollman said. "To see it all the way to the end is incredible. To be their age and have such an impact on the state — I tell you, our future is bright."
By Geoff Pursinger
Editor, Hillsboro Tribune
Visit Hillsboro Tribune on Facebook and Twitter
Follow Geoff at @ReporterGeoff
Subscribe to our E-News and get the week's top stories in your inbox
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.