Northam orders state agencies, colleges and universities to stop using single-use plastics

By: - March 23, 2021 10:15 am

Plastic waste. (Sarah Vogelsong/ Virginia Mercury)

All Virginia state agencies and public colleges and universities will stop using single-use plastics under an executive order from Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam that aims to reduce statewide solid waste.

“Landfills or incinerators subject to strict environmental standards are the best option for waste that cannot currently be reused or recycled. Such facilities, however — no matter how strictly regulated — have negative environmental and social impacts on nearby communities and siting often raises issues of environmental justice,” Executive Order 77, issued Tuesday, reads.

“Therefore, it is critical that the commonwealth focus on reducing its disposal of solid waste, and diverting as much as possible from landfills to beneficial reuse.”

Announcing the executive order at the annual Environment Virginia symposium, held virtually this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Northam called it “another step toward sustainability and a cleaner environment.”  

“Single-use disposable plastic items in particular pose a severe and growing threat to fish and wildlife and to the health of our Chesapeake Bay,” he said. “Plastics, everything from plastic forks and spoons to straws to bottled water, are the most pervasive type of marine debris in our ocean and along our coast. … We know the planet will be better off if we stop using so much plastic.”

Under the order, all state agencies and higher education institutions will be required within the next 120 days to stop buying, selling or distributing various single-use plastics that “are not for medical, public health or public safety use.” 

Affected plastics include disposable plastic bags, single-use plastic and polystyrene food service containers, plastic straws and cutlery and single-use plastic water bottles.

Gov. Ralph Northam at a press conference in October. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)


Over the next six months, all agencies will then be required to develop plastic pollution reduction plans to entirely eliminate the use of such plastics for all non-medical purposes by 2025 and identify “reusable, compostable or recyclable” alternatives.

The secretary of natural resources is also ordered to develop recommendations for reducing and diverting solid waste from landfills and submit a report to the governor and the General Assembly by Oct. 1.

“Nobody wants to live next to a landfill, and historically, they have been sited in places that disproportionately impact underserved populations and communities of color,” said Department of Environmental Quality Director David Paylor in a statement from the governor’s office. “This is a significant environmental justice issue, and the less waste we produce, the fewer landfills we will need.”

Since taking control of all three branches of state government in 2020, Democrats have pushed through a series of measures to reduce plastic waste. Nationwide, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that only about 8.7 percent of all plastic waste was recycled in 2018

In 2020, the General Assembly passed a law allowing local governments to impose a five-cent tax on plastic bags from grocery stores, drugstores and convenience stores, an option now being considered by at least four Northern Virginia localities.

During the past legislative session, lawmakers also passed a bill banning the use of polystyrene food containers by restaurants and food vendors statewide by 2025. Northam signed the measure into law last week. 

A more controversial bill passed alongside the polystyrene ban would classify chemical recycling as manufacturing rather than waste management, a move proponents, including the plastics industry, said would encourage reuse but opponents said would unnecessarily ease regulations on the fledgling industry. That bill is still being reviewed by the governor’s office.

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.