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Youngkin amendment would delay date to ban single-use plastics

Plastic foam containers would be banned from food vendors at a later date under an amendment from Gov. Glenn Youngkin. (David Tran/ VCU Capital News Service)
Plastic foam containers would be banned from food vendors at a later date under an amendment from Gov. Glenn Youngkin. (David Tran/ VCU Capital News Service)

One of the 200-plus amendments Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin proposed for the state budget would delay a ban on single use plastics beyond a timeframe set as part of a compromise the legislature made a few years ago.

This story was reported and written by our media partner The Virginia Mercury

Amendment 148 “shifts the effective date of the prohibition on use of polystyrene containers from 2025 to 2028” for retail food establishments with 20 or more locations around the state, and from “2026 to 2030 for smaller restaurants.”

A Youngkin spokesman did not immediately return a request for comment on the amendment.

Polystyrene is the foam material that makes containers typically used for takeout food. It’s often mistakenly called Styrofoam, but that is the name brand for an extruded polystyrene that is different from the expanded polystyrene (EPS) typically used for food packaging.

In  2021, the General Assembly under Democratic control passed a bill from Del. Betsy Carr, D-Richmond, that would have set the ban  to start in 2023 for larger establishments and in 2025 for smaller ones.

“It was one of the kinds of plastics that is most prevalent in the environment,” Carr said in a phone interview, adding heating it in the microwave can lead to health issues. “It gets in the water. It gets in the soil. It breaks down to miniscule pieces. It’s very dangerous.”

Lawmakers passed the ban as part of what former Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, then called the “ Great Polystyrene Compromise,” to allow advanced recycling facilities to locate in the state without needing to get a waste permit.

A year later, when Republicans took control of the House of Delegates and the governor’s office, the ban was delayed by five years. This year, Youngkin proposed another ban delay in his initial budget. But Carr then proposed an amendment to bring the date closer to the ban start date that lawmakers agreed to, before Youngkin introduced his latest delay request.

For Elly Boehmer Wilson, state director for Environment Virginia, the removal of single-use plastics isn’t something that can be done through advanced recycling, an umbrella term for heating waste products to use them for fuel. 

Despite having some petroleum-based qualities that can make it recyclable, EPS is made of more than  90% air, meaning facilities need  costly special equipment to compact the items into a denser shape. Because of that lightweight composition, there’s “really no market” to recycle the material and it easily blows around and out of the trucks delivering them to landfills, before ultimately ending up in the environment, Boehmer said. 

Objects made with the chemicals can be eaten by animals, such as birds, and starve  them by giving them a sense of being full although they’re not actually getting any nutrients, she added.

“There are alternative products and there’s actually a market for those things,” Boehmer said, pointing to a list on the Department of Environmental Quality’s  website that offers information on “many similarly-priced” alternatives such as reusable containers, paper products, recyclable plastic, foil or metal.

“EPS isn’t the best choice for people or the environment,” DEQ’s website states. “It’s time to learn about and plan for alternatives.” 

It’s a necessary change that Virginia is equipped to handle, Boehmer said. 

“Virginia had an extremely generous timeline,” to start its EPS ban, said Boehmer, noting that states like New Jersey have already adopted bans that took effect in  2022.

“It’s an industry tactic. The more you delay it the less likely it will ever happen,” Boehmer said, adding that maybe the state should “no longer allow [advanced recyclers] in if we’re not going to have this ban.”

After the 2021 compromise, one advanced recycler,  Braven Environmental, announced plans to build a $31.7 million facility in Cumberland County, but ultimately pulled the  plug.

Work continues to bring more of the facilities into the state as chemical materials company Eastman built one in Kingsport, Tennessee with a location in Virginia, said Brett Vassey, president and CEO of the Virginia Manufacturers Association, and a densifier equipment manufacturer from Georgia is also working with the state to site a facility in Virginia.

But while the polystyrene ban was tied to altering how advanced recyclers enter the state, the two policy choices shouldn’t be conflated, Vassey said. 

“They are apples and Asian pears — related but not the same,” Vassey said. “Polystyrene is just one type of plastic that advanced recycling facilities can recover from the solid waste stream.”

The issue with banning the single use plastics, Vassey said, is it could lead to use of more costly alternatives, or those that aren’t compostable or recyclable because they could be contaminated with food oils and grease, unless they’re lined with a plastic film barrier.

A one-pager from the Coalition for Consumer Choices — a group consisting of the Virginia Chemistry Council, the Virginia Food Industry and the Virginia Restaurant Lodging and Travel Association — states that “polystyrene is superior at keeping food at desired temperatures and containing liquids. Other products are expensive and do not perform as well.”

The bottom line, according to Vassey, is that “bans do not work. Landfill diversion, and waste recovery and recycling are the most environmental- and consumer-responsible solutions. They are just difficult and take hard work.”

But Carr called claims on the option of recycling polystyrene “false,” adding that some restaurants may have equipment in-house to break down the materials, “if you have a controlled way of getting the [polystyrene].”

Carr said the polystyrene may otherwise enter the environment.

The legislature is scheduled to reconvene Wednesday to act on Youngkin’s amendments and vetoes to the budget and other legislation. Carr couldn’t predict the polystyrene amendment’s outcome since it can’t be acted on individually and must be included in or excluded from a package deal along with all the other amendments to the budget.