Is your garbage filled with food-stained takeout containers? Some Oregon lawmakers want to change that. 

A new bill would allow customers to bring their own reusable containers to restaurants for takeout orders and to-go food. Senate Bill 545, introduced by Senator Janeen Sollman, a Democrat from Hillsboro, aims to reduce landfill waste and cut back on single-use plastic and other non-recyclable containers. The bill already passed the Senate with bipartisan support and now needs approval from the House of Representatives. If approved and signed into law, the bill would update Oregon’s health regulations to allow restaurants to fill customer-owned containers with food. Currently, the state prohibits the practice due to potential cross-contamination.

Many takeout containers used by restaurants are not recyclable or compostable, due to wax coating or other mixed materials. 

Moreover, Oregon set goals in 2015 of reducing plastic and food waste by 25 percent within five years. However, in 2020, the state estimated only 10 percent of food waste was being recovered and only 13.7 percent of plastic waste was being diverted from landfills, the Statesman Journal reported

The Oregon Department of Agriculture is also working to allow customers to bring their own containers to grocery stores for bulk food items. A series of similar bills would further crack down on styrofoam products and single-use plastics.

“Reducing food container waste is good for our environment,” Sollman said in a news release. “This is a simple, sensible change that will encourage a more sustainable and resilient future for ourselves and generations to come.”

While some Portland food and beverage businesses already have programs where customers can return plastic or glass packaging for wash and reuse by the business, those programs require specific conditions in order to be compliant with state laws.

Bold Reuse, formerly called GO Box, partners with New Seasons grocery chain to offer reusable containers and has active partnerships with nearly 100 Portland-area restaurants that accept the special plastic containers, but the business acknowledges it’s in a gray area when it comes to health regulations. 

“Bold Reuse has relationships with the state Departments of Agriculture and County Health Departments for the states that we provide our service,” the company’s website notes. “Our service falls outside of their regulatory purviews, but these organizations have reviewed our standard operating procedures related to the safe and sanitary washing, drying, and transporting of reusable containers and cups.”

While the reusable container model is embraced by many restaurants, the Oregon Restaurant & Lodging Association (ORLA) opposes SB 545, along with a slew of other bills aimed at eliminating single-use plastic and styrofoam. 

“We have a couple of concerns: The first is simply around health and food safety, not knowing whether or not somebody’s container is clean,” Greg Astley, government affairs director for ORLA told the Mercury, noting uncertainty about whether new rules would require restaurants to have separate sinks for washing or disinfecting customer containers, or whether the state would require all containers be washed by restaurant staff, which would be time consuming.

Astley said ORLA fears if anyone were to get sick from a contaminated container, restaurants would likely take the blame. 

“All it’s gonna take is one contaminated container and you’ve got a food borne illness outbreak,” Astley said, noting the disinfection process is much more stringent in commercial kitchens than most at-home washing methods.

SB 545 would create new rules stipulating containers must be visibly clean, or refilled “from equipment that provides contamination-free process.”

Johnny Ricci, owner of Dots Cafe and Atlas Pizza, shares ORLA’s immediate concerns about cross-contamination, but said he’s eager to reduce waste and cut down on the cost of purchasing takeout containers for his businesses.

“Who’s in charge of actually deciding what’s clean? I wouldn’t want to put that on my staff’s plate, no pun intended,” Ricci said. “While I’m totally for it, because a reusable container seems more environmentally friendly than a plastic or paper container, I’m concerned about the [unknowns]. I don't need some guy coming in, busting my balls because somebody brought in a dirty lunchbox to take French fries home in.”

Ricci acknowledges the prospect of not having to store as many single-use containers in his cafes and pizza shops has major appeal.

“As long as the liability lies in the hands of whoever’s taking the food home, I think it’s a great idea,” he said.

If approved, the Oregon Health Authority would develop new rules that take effect no later than June 30, 2024.