Environment Oregon appeals to local leaders on Westside

by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Sarah Higginbotham, state director for Environment Oregon, holds up a glass jar of 'toxic soup,' a collection of trash particles found in the ocean due to the misuse of plastic bags. Higgenbotham hopes a ban on the single-use bags could be in place later this year.For years, the question at grocery stores has been “paper or plastic?”

But a group of environmental activists are hoping to change that, asking city officials on the Westside to ban single-use plastic bags from grocers and big-box stores to protect the environment.

For months, members of Environment Oregon, an advocacy group based in Portland, have been going door-to-door in Beaverton, Tigard and Lake Oswego collecting signatures to ban plastic bags in the three cities.

At a press conference outside Tigard City Hall on Tuesday, activists said they would be turning those petitions over to the city leaders in the hopes of banning the bags later this year.

“We are asking city councilors to listen to the voices of their citizens and take action,” said Portland resident Rowan Jones, a member of the group’s citizen outreach team.

Similar press conferences were staged Tuesday in Beaverton and Lake TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Sarah Bixel, 19, says she supports the bag ban because of its devastating effects on the Pacific Ocean.

Environment Oregon petitioners have collected 1,700 signatures in Beaverton, more than 1,200 signatures in Tigard and 750 in Lake Oswego since canvassing began in May, said Sarah Higginbotham, state director for Environment Oregon.

The desire to ban plastic bags is primarily to help the environment, Higginbotham said.

Oregonians use 1.7 billion bags a year, on average, Jones added. Those bags are often thrown away, joining landfills or littering the streets. Many eventually make their way into rivers and streams, which flow into the ocean.

There, Higginbotham said, bags create an ecological disaster. The plastic leaks toxins into the water, and birds, turtles and other marine life often ingest the material, mistaking it for food.

The remains form what scientists have dubbed the “great Pacific garbage patch,” a large swath of the ocean where millions of tons of broken up plastics join the currents.

In some parts of the Pacific, plastic outweighs plankton six to one, Environment Oregon estimates.

“The scary truth is that scientists tell us this plastic may never biodegrade,” Higginbotham said. “And it gets worse every day Oregonians wait to tackle this problem.”

For Jones, that’s unacceptable.

“Nothing we use for just a few minutes should be allowed to pollute our environment for hundreds of years,” he told a crowd of reporters on Tuesday.

Westside communities won’t be the first cities in Oregon to ban the bags. Portland, Corvallis and Eugene have banned single-use plastic bags in the last several years, and the Legislature considered banning the bags in 2010 and 2011.

On hand at Tuesday’s press conferences was a “Bag Monster,” a large suit made of 500 plastic grocery bags — Americans use that many grocery bags on average every year, Jones said.

“It’s a shocking representation of the deteriorating effect we are having on our environment,” he TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - The 'Bag Monster' makes a statement during a press conference outside Tigard City Hall on Tuesday. Environment Oregon has been gathering signatures for weeks for a possible ban on plastic bags in Tigard, Lake Oswego and Beaverton.

That impact is what drew the support of 19-year-old Sarah Bixel.

The 2011 Tualatin High School graduate is volunteering with the organization over the summer while she is on summer break from Oregon State University.

“Growing up in Oregon, I’ve seen plastic pollution on the coast,” she said, “and I have gotten more passionate about it as I’ve been educated about the problem in the Pacific.”

At more than double the size of Texas, the garbage patch has tripled in size since the 1980s, and scientists expect it to double in size again by the year 2020.

“It’s definitely a problem,” she said. “But we can put a dent in it if Oregon can stop using 1.7 billion plastic bags every year.”

Lake Oswego and Beaverton have both supported proposed statewide bans on the bags, but neither city has gone the extra step to ban the bags themselves.

Jones said city officials should “answer the call” of hundreds of citizens who want to protect rivers and oceans by taking a stand against plastic pollution.

“From conversations we have had with hundreds of local citizens, there is profound enthusiasm around this issue,” Jones said.

The petitions will be turned in to city officials next week, Higginbotham TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Portland-based Environment Oregon is hoping to ban plastic bags in Beaverton, Tigard and Lake Oswego. Portland banned plastic bags from grocery stores and some big-box retailers in 2011.

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