(The Center Square) – Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed legislation to prohibit plastic foam containers used at many restaurants and signed an executive order to phase out single-use plastics at state agencies and public colleges and universities.
House Bill 533, sponsored by Del. Betsy Carr, D-Richmond, will prohibit certain chain restaurants from using these containers by July 1, 2023 and requires compliance for all food vendors by July 1, 2025. It had substantial Democratic support, but opposition from most Republican lawmakers.
Violating this order would yield fines up to $50 per day, which would be collected through civil action by either the local government or the attorney general’s office. Money from the collected fines would be directed to either the Litter Control and Recycling Fund or the treasury of the relevant locality.
The legislation received strong opposition from the business community. Some restaurants said it would cost them tens of thousands of dollars annually to buy alternative containers. Many restaurants are still struggling to make a profit because of financial struggles caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic restrictions.
Executive order 77 would ban most single-use plastics for these agencies and institutions by 2025 as a means to curtail the pollution of waterways, reduce the harm to fish and wildlife and to take up less space in landfills. Most of these plastics are easily or economically recyclable and are not biodegradable, according to the governor’s office.
“From landmark investments in renewable energy to bold action to tackle the climate crisis, Virginia is at the forefront of innovative efforts to protect our environment, and addressing the problem of plastic pollution is an important part of this work,” Northam said in a statement. “As a large producer of solid waste, the Commonwealth must lead by example and transition away from single-use disposable plastics to create a cleaner, more sustainable future for all Virginians.”
Within the first 120 days, the agencies and institutions will be prohibited from buying, selling and distributing certain items, including disposable bags, single-use plastics, polystyrene food service containers, plastic straws and cutlery and single-use plastic water bottles. Single-use plastics used for medical reasons, public health and public safety will have a short-term exemption. The order maintains long-term exemptions for plastics used for medical and emergency applications.
The governor’s office cited the Environmental Protection Agency, which found that less than 9% of plastics are recycled in the country and 91% end up in landfills are incinerators. Solid waste disposed of in landfills and incinerators grew from about two million tons to 23 million tons per year since 2011.
“Plastic pollution has emerged as one of the most challenging environmental problems of our lifetime, with devastating impacts on our oceans and coasts, and many questions about human health effects,” said Secretary of Natural Resources Matthew J. Strickler. “Decades of experience have shown us that breaking our plastic addiction is the only truly effective pollution reduction strategy.”
Chris Braunlich, the president of the free-market Thomas Jefferson Institute, encouraged the governor to sign House Bill 1164, which would expand opportunities for advanced recycling. He told The Center Square this legislation would be a more powerful testament to reducing plastics in landfills.
“To date, he has not [signed this legislation] and its passage was part of a legislative agreement to ban polystyrene while increasing the use of recycling,” Braunlich said. “This would help build a new industry in Virginia that could recycle these products, reduce landfill and greenhouse gases, and mitigate the concerns of many who – in this age of a pandemic – have understandable concerns about [reusing] items like cutlery and glassware.”