By Karen Hery
“You never know where things will lead” is an understatement for first and second grade teacher Michelle Stobel and a group of students at Sunnyside Environmental School.
The enthusiastic energy of this group of school kids helped Representative Rob Nosse, District 42, phase out the school district’s use of styrofoam lunch trays. As Nosse comes to the end of his first full term in office the legislation banning polystyrene foam in the form of plates, trays, food containers and food packaging in the service of any meal, is his biggest success story to date.
It all started with a school trip to attend a hearing in Salem two years ago. “We didn’t expect to be part of making legislation. I never imagined it would go this far,” said Strobel at the end of another school day at Sunnyside Environmental School – a focus option school in the Portland Public School District that teaches kindergardeners through eighth graders with an experiential learning approach and focus on environmental sciences.
Two school years ago, Strobel read a story to her first and second graders, who are now in third and forth grade, about garbage in the ocean, much of which is polystyrene, most commonly known as styrofoam.
The class discussion turned to styrofoam trays, unheard of by most of the students while attending a school that still has the allocated funding for a dishwasher and staff to run it. Strobel, having worked at other schools, could describe the stacks of trays carried out everyday to the dumpster.
The students took their concern about trays and the ocean to a town hall meeting with Nosse’s predecessor, Jules Bailey, now Multnomah County Commissioner. He encouraged them to keep working on solutions so the students started meeting on Wednesdays after school. They gathered friends and information on polystyrene and looked for effective ways to share it.
One of the parents was a legislative aid in Salem and got the group a hearing date. This dedicated group of first grade through middle school students, wrote speeches and presented them to the House Energy and Environmental Committee.
When Rob Nosse took office, he took on the task of writing the bill based on their work. It would ban all schools in Oregon from using polystyrene trays (HB 2762). The students wrote more speeches, presented to the Capitol again and went down to Salem to sit in on the house meeting to hear the vote. They watched as it passed the House of Representatives with 47 yes votes, 10 no and 3 abstentions.
The bill is slated to go in front of the Senate for a vote in June with a promising outlook so far. At this point, it’s debatable who is learning more in this process, the students or Rob Nosse, as a first time legislator.
“I remember their first speeches two years ago,” says Strobel, as she looks back over the whole process, “And to see these students now, how articulate and confident they are. It’s really amazing!”
Nosse will be the first to admit that it is amazing when legislation does get through successfully. He first thought the styrofoam industry would be the biggest opponent. A phase out time and the opportunity to still use the styrofoam trays, if they could be recycled, was enough to bring the styrofoam industry on board.
Nosse’s biggest hurdle to overcome it turned out, was with the 197 school districts who often do not have the budget for dishwashers and staff to run them or adequate funding even for the next step up to compostable paper trays. Financial hardship provisions have been put in the bill which can be read in its entirety athttp://gov.oregonlive.com/bill/2015/HB2762/
Nosse is especially proud of this bill and his work on the House Bill 2307, a youth mental health protection act banning conversion therapy.
Nosse’s day starts early Monday through Friday while the legislature is in session. Up at 6 am and on the road early so he can be in his office in Salem a little before 8 with committee meetings all morning, a democratic caucus mid day, checking in with other legislators in the lunch room, back into committees in the afternoon, on the road back to Portland some time after 5 to drive back to his home.
Nosse was assigned to three committees in his first term–Healthcare, Business and Labor. His background as a lobbyist with the Oregon Nurses Association and the Rules committee provided him with the necessary experience to oversee these committees.
His staff keeps a small office space here in Portland at The Hatch, a social entrepreneurial work space at 2420 NE Sandy Blvd.
If you know of the next group of first and second graders eager to start a bill or have your own questions and concerns from the Brooklyn, Buckman, Hawthorne, Sunnyside, Ladds and Kerns neighborhoods, Nosse and his staff can be reached in Portland at 971.217.8037 or firstname.lastname@example.org and at the capitol at 503.986.1442 or Rep.Robnosse@state.or.us.