Virginia agencies are getting rid of single-use plastics. Not everyone is pleased.

Business groups hope Youngkin will roll back executive order

By: - November 22, 2021 12:01 am

Plastic waste. (Sarah Vogelsong/ Virginia Mercury)

The road to getting rid of single-use plastics at the Virginia Department of Corrections is littered with security protocols — specifically, ensuring that nonplastic bottles and cutlery can’t be used as weapons. 

“There’s a lot of things we can’t change strictly to aluminum,” said Russell Vanness, the department’s sustainability administrator. “You can’t possibly make a weapon out of” a standard single-use plastic water bottle, he said. But other, more rigid drink containers “can be made into a blade of some kind.” 

As Virginia agencies begin complying with Gov. Ralph Northam’s March directive to wean off of single-use plastics, DOC isn’t alone in encountering some unexpected challenges. The Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton is hunting for a replacement for the plastic hinged containers it uses to sell more than half a dozen flavors of fudge. Everyone is uncertain what to use in place of plastic garbage can liners. 

Still, said Sharon Baxter, a division director with the Department of Environmental Quality, which is overseeing the push to phase out the state government’s use of disposable plastic, “I’ve been really impressed with how sincere an effort people have put forth on this.” 

Northam’s March order, known as Executive Order 77, directed all state agencies including public colleges and universities to start phasing out single-use plastics with an ultimate goal of eliminating their use by the end of 2025. Disposable plastics used for medical purposes were exempt, and greater latitude was given to those used for public health or safety reasons. 

As justification, the governor pointed to not only an increase in the state’s solid waste, but also the threats plastic pollution poses to the Chesapeake Bay. 

“Plastics are the most pervasive type of marine debris in our ocean and along our coasts,” Northam wrote. 

Agencies have complied with the executive order, said Baxter. Since it went into effect, DEQ has received 114 of an expected 116 plastic pollution reduction plans from agencies. A more wide-ranging report on how Virginia can reduce and divert solid waste from landfills that the Secretary of Natural Resources was supposed to submit to the governor and the General Assembly by Oct. 1 has not been completed. Northam spokesperson Alena Yarmosky said that Secretary Ann Jennings, who took over for departing secretary Matt Strickler in mid-September shortly before the report was due, was “working diligently” to complete it and expects it to be done “no later than mid-December.”

Changes are already underway. The Frontier Culture Museum has started selling metal water bottles and phased out plastic ones. Virginia’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority said in its plan that it’s working to replace roughly 2 million plastic bags used a month with reusable bags by December 2022. 

“We think we have 99 percent of state employees covered by the plans that were submitted,” said Baxter. That can have a big impact: “The state’s buying power is pretty immense,” she said.  

Manufacturers push against order

While the March order caught some agencies off guard, it was in line with a string of plastic waste reduction measures Virginia Democrats rolled out during their two years of control in Richmond, a tenure set to end this January with the arrival of Republican Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin and a Republican controlled House of Delegates.

Besides the single-use plastic phaseout at state agencies, Democrats allowed local governments to impose a five-cent tax on certain plastic bags — an option several began exercising this year — narrowly approved banning polystyrene food containers by 2025 and banned balloon releases. More controversially, they also smoothed the path for chemical recycling facilities that repurpose existing plastics to locate in Virginia. 

The ban on state agencies’ use of disposable plastics has sparked an industry backlash.

In late 2019, in response to the prospect of a polystyrene ban, a collection of business groups formed the Coalition for Consumer Choices, which includes the Virginia Manufacturers Association and chemical company trade group the American Chemistry Council. This July, the coalition sent a letter to Northam’s administration arguing that EO77 “makes Virginia far less sustainable and is perhaps the most unrealistic and overreaching regulation of its kind in the United States today.” 

The coalition says that the executive order will lead to increased landfilling because plastic alternatives generally weigh far more than plastics and aren’t recyclable, as well as increased greenhouse gas emissions. 

“There is ample evidence that use of common alternatives to plastic packaging items leads to increased GHG emissions, not less,” the businesses wrote, citing a 2020 study by Imperial College London researchers as well as several industry studies. 

Brett Vassey, president and CEO of the Virginia Manufacturers Association said that rather than banning single-use plastics, the coalition would like to see a greater emphasis on development of a “circular economy” that focuses more on reusing and repurposing materials rather than discarding them. 

Vassey said the coalition has reached out to the incoming Youngkin administration to put rollback of the executive order “on their watchlist” and is proposing a range of measures such as improving funding to beef up what he calls “anemic” recycling infrastructure on the local level and making recycling centers tax exempt. 

“We’re not tone deaf to the need to have solutions to plastic waste,” he said. “So what we are also trying to do with the Youngkin administration is provide alternatives.” 

A spokesperson for Youngkin did not respond to the question of whether the administration had any plans to rescind or amend the order. 

An ‘additional push’ and a ‘challenge’

Despite concerns, at least some state agencies subject to the single-use plastic ban were already moving in the direction of phasing out plastics and otherwise attempting to reduce waste. 

The University of Virginia had in place a sustainability plan to reduce its total waste footprint 70 percent by 2030 and “had already been pushing towards zero-waste events,” said Sustainability Director Andrea Trimble. 

“This was an additional push,” she said. With EO77, she said, “we’re able to mobilize and implement [those waste goals] faster than we would have otherwise.” 

Similarly, Nancy Heltman, visitor services director for Virginia State Parks, said the parks began selling boxed water and encouraging visitors to use refillable bottles in lieu of plastic ones two years ago. And Vanness said the Virginia Department of Corrections had been focused on sustainability “for quite some time,” running an extensive composting program and tracking waste.

The order has “asked us to enhance our program,” he said. “It’s actually sped us up a little bit from where we were and the goals that we’ve had.” 

Still, members of several of the agencies the Mercury interviewed said it would be a challenge to meet the 2025 phaseout deadline. 

“The overarching goal of this, I think, is wonderful,” said Cliff Edwards, director of facilities for the Frontier Culture Museum. “I think it’s a good idea for all of us, but I think it’s certainly going to take the allotted amount of time to get there.” 

Among the biggest barriers cited by agencies were availability of alternatives and costs. The Frontier Culture Museum said that to fully implement a recycling program it would have to add staff. In some areas, Virginia State Parks has no nearby place to bring recyclables. 

“We have communities where there isn’t any recycling,” said Heltman. “Many localities just can’t find an affordable way to continue to fund recycling programs.”

Also vexing for the parks: soda replacements. 

“We still rely on drink machines in our parks and some vendors are not able, at this time, to switch out bottle dispensing machines for cans,” said Heltman. “Some drinks, like sports drinks, are typically available only in plastic bottles but this seems to be changing.”

That’s a problem shared by the Department of Corrections, which stocks commissaries in correctional facilities where prisoners can buy items like chips and candy.

“Acceptable alternatives were hard to find in the commissary,” said Vanness. But, he added, “industry will provide alternatives. It’ll catch up with us and it will be easier as years go by.”

This story has been updated to provide a comment from Northam’s office about the Secretary of Natural Resources’ report on waste reduction efforts. 

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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.