Virginia General Assembly agrees to ban polystyrene food containers by 2025

(Virginia Mercury)

A Virginia law that will ban all restaurants and food vendors from using polystyrene food containers by July 2025 is on its way to the governor.

Under the legislation, which has been carried by Del. Betsy Carr, D-Richmond, two years running, large restaurants and food vendors — defined as those that are part of a chain with 20 or more locations — will have until July 1, 2023, to stop dispensing food in polystyrene containers. Smaller businesses will have an extra two years to comply with the law, with a deadline of July 1, 2025. Violations would be subject to a civil penalty of up to $50 per day.

Polystyrene is popular in the food service industry because of its ability to keep foods and liquids at their original temperature.

But the plastic foam is also non-biodegradable, and recycling companies have historically struggled to find ways to handle it. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, only 0.6 percent of the 2.2 million tons of polystyrene produced in 2018 was recycled. 

“It is probably one of the lesser prevalent plastics as far as percentage is concerned,” said Carr. “However, it’s about the number one when you see litter and stuff like that. … It’s in our creeks and in our rivers, in our ditches and on the roadways.”

Virginia lawmakers passed a version of Carr’s bill in 2020, but the Senate added a provision requiring that it be passed again in 2021 in order to go into effect. 

The bill this year cleared the House comfortably but ran into trouble in the Senate, where lawmakers worried it would add another burden to restaurants already struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Negotiations involving a separate bill concerned with advanced, or chemical, recycling helped the polystyrene ban gain enough support to pass both chambers in what Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, called “The Great Polystyrene Compromise of 2021.”

The Senate also amended the original bill to extend the ban from businesses to local governments, schools and nonprofits, a change both Petersen and Carr said would level the playing field. The House voted to accept the amendment Wednesday, sending the final bill to Gov. Ralph Northam for his signature.  

CORRECTION: We have removed a reference to Styrofoam as the most well-known brand of polystyrene. According to Styrofoam manufacturer DuPont de Nemours, Styrofoam is extruded polystyrene foam, which is different from the expanded polystyrene foam used to make food packaging.