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By Ian K. Kullgren November 20, 2012

Did Portland's bag ban only target a 'modest share' of single-use plastic bags?

Last week, the Portland City Council voted to significantly expand its year-old ban on single-use plastic bags. By October of next year, the ban, which currently targets big-box stores and supermarkets, will affect "all retail establishments and food providers."

The initial rule, passed last year, targeted fewer than 200 businesses. The new rule will reach an estimated 5,000 restaurants and retailers, including food carts, farmers markets and corner stores.

In a draft ordinance, released by the mayor’s office before the vote, his office outlined some of the council’s findings on the matter. Among them was this interesting bit about the initial ordinance: "Portland City Council adopted Ordinance 184759 as a first step to promote the use of reusable checkout bags. The policy reduced single-use plastic shopping bag consumption,
but this initial scope represents only a modest share of total single-use checkout bag use."

We know, of course, that modest is a somewhat subjective term, but even so, we found its usage odd given that we remember the initial ordinance being touted as a significant victory.

We called the mayor’s office and asked: What percentage of single-use plastic bags did the initial ordinance target and what percentage does this new ordinance target?

We got this response in an email back from Sam Adams’ spokeswoman Caryn Brooks:

So, you’re fact checking the phrase "While Portland’s initial ordinance addresses the large grocery store and pharmacy users of single-use plastic bags, the initial scope represents only a modest share of total single-use checkout bag use" that was in our blog post with a focus on the term "modest share." The term "modest share" is referring to the number of outlets required to ban single use bag usage in the original scope, which was 167 outlets. The next two phases will include some 5,000 outlets. Comparatively, we consider 167 outlets modest."

Certainly, 167 outlets compared to some 5,000 is modest. But when we read the draft ordinance, we didn’t take this section to be talking about outlets at all -- we read it to be about the share of plastic bags banned. Let’s go back to the statement in the draft ordinance: "(T)his initial scope represents only a modest share of total single-use checkout bag use."

It’s clearly discussing bag usage -- not the number of outlets. So, we reiterated our interest in any information regarding the way the initial ban affected usage and any projections on how the subsequent ban might.

When Brooks got back to us, she said, "It is a number that we do not have access to and was never an element of the policy creation ...

"We never set out to reduce a particular percentage, because ultimately even a small percentage is too many. Obviously as you decrease the number of outlets that use plastic bags, the number of bags being used will decrease."

When it comes to fact checking for PolitiFact Oregon, the onus is always on the speakers -- in this case, the mayor’s office -- to back up the statements they are making. So, we followed up one last time in a phone call to be absolutely sure the office had no information on the initial reduction in single-use plastic bag usage.

Brooks reiterated that we had misread the ordinance -- though she conceded it could have been clearer -- and that it was referring to outlets not usage. She also made the case that the second ordinance was not predicated on how successful the first ordinance was. It was always the intention, she said, to re-evaluate and push the ban further.

That is all fine and good, but ultimately we can only work with what is before us. The fact is that in trying to communicate with the public regarding furthering the city’s plastic bag ban, the mayor’s office made it sound as though the initial ban really only took a small chunk of single-use plastic bags out of circulation, even though they have nothing to base such a statement on.

(For what it’s worth, we made a call to Joe Gilliam, the president of the Northwest Grocery Association. He didn’t have any hard numbers on the bans either. He said it was probably safe to say that the initial ordinance targeted "a third of the volume --- but again, I caution the numbers.")

We understand that the mayor’s office may not have intended to mean plastic bag usage, but it read that way to us -- and likely many others. Words matter. The statement contains an element of truth -- a smaller number of outlets was affected initially -- but the mayor’s office has no facts to back up its assertion that the first ban represented a modest share of bag use.  

We rate this claim Mostly False.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

E-mails from Caryn Brooks, spokeswoman for Portland Mayor Sam Adams, Nov. 16, 2012

Interview with Caryn Brooks, Nov. 16, 2012

Mayor Sam Adams, A Better Bag Ban, Nov. 7, 2012

Draft ordinance, Portland City Council

Portland City Council Ordinance 184759, 2011

Joe Gilliam, the president of the Northwest Grocery Association, Nov. 20, 2012

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Did Portland's bag ban only target a 'modest share' of single-use plastic bags?

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