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Virginia lawmaker aims to move up timeline on restaurant polystyrene ban

(Photo courtesy - Canva)
(Photo courtesy - Canva)

When the General Assembly’s regular session wrapped up last week, Democratic majorities in the Senate and House of Delegates had revived a recent debate over the state’s ban on expanded polystyrene takeout containers.

Expanded polystyrene is the lightweight plastic foam used for food and drink containers. It’s commonly known as Styrofoam, though that’s a brand name for an  extruded polystyrene product.

This story was reported and written by VPM News

Back during legislative sessions in 2020 and 2021, Del. Betsy Carr (D-Richmond) sponsored  a bill that, when signed by former Gov. Ralph Northam, required restaurant chains with 20 or more locations in the commonwealth to phase out expanded polystyrene takeout containers by July 2023. All other vendors had to do the same by 2025.

The bill passed with some bipartisan support.

Then,  in 2022, the General Assembly and Gov. Glenn Youngkin approved budget language that pushed the dates back five years to 2028 and 2030, respectively.

Now, Carr has made an amendment to the 2022 budget language which would change the effective dates again — this time moving them up to 2025 for large chains and 2026 for all restaurants.

The ban initially was passed in an effort to reduce plastic pollution in Virginia.

Elly Boehmer Wilson, director of nonprofit Environment Virginia, said polystyrene is among the most environmentally harmful single-use plastics: It breaks down into microplastics, gums up recycling systems and is mistaken for food by wild animals.

“Nothing we use for just a few minutes should be polluting our environment for generations,” Boehmer Wilson said.

According to Clean Virginia Waterways, a Longwood University-based nonprofit, polystyrene is one of the most commonly found types of litter in the state.

But Tommy Herbert, director of government affairs with the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging and Travel Association, said polystyrene is ideal for food service: It's sturdy, it’s well insulated and it’s cheap .

“Which, when you think about the fact that costs are rising for restaurant operators on a number of fronts concurrently right now, is just another piece of bad news that the restaurant industry doesn’t need,” Herbert said about moving up the effective ban dates.

Other options for food service containers, like compostable cardboard and plastic-lined paper, can be more expensive, potentially adding thousands of dollars to restaurants' yearly overhead.

Boehmer Wilson argued that other states and Washington, D.C., have their own styrofoam bans — some predating Virginia’s, others being approved in the past few years — and that restaurants have managed in those places.

“Particularly for these really large restaurants, they’re already doing this in D.C. You know, Chick-fil-A is doing this elsewhere, so they can do that here in Virginia,” she said.

Herbert also questioned whether switching containers would solve Virginia’s litter problem — or just result in different kinds of litter.

In a written statement, Youngkin spokesman Christian Martinez said the governor is “reviewing the legislation but continues to have concerns about” its potential impacts on small businesses.

Youngkin has until April 17 to act on legislation and budget items before the General Assembly reconvenes.