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Polystyrene takeout container ban delayed five years

Person eating lunch out of plastic foam container
Rich Pedroncelli/AP
A person eats lunch out of a plastic foam container in Sacramento, Calif. A measure by Virginia lawmakers to bar restaurants from using polystyrene foam take-out containers was delayed by five years in this year's budget. (File photo: Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

Virginia legislators pushed back a statewide commitment to ban polystyrene foam to-go containers by five years in the new state budget. Now, restaurants with 20 or more locations in the state have until 2028 to phase out the containers, while smaller businesses have until 2030. 

Expanded polystyrene foam (not to be confused with the brand name Styrofoam) is a very common and reliable takeout product. It’s sturdy, insulates well and is cheap. 

It’s also among the most pernicious of pollutants. It’s lightweight, meaning it easily blows away, and it doesn’t biodegrade. Its porous nature makes it a sponge of sorts — often picking up harmful chemicals while it’s moved by wind or water. 

Katie Register of Clean Virginia Waterways, a nonprofit program based at Longwood University that researches, educates on and cleans up plastic waste from Virginia's water, said polystyrene is one of the most commonly used — and trashed — plastics worldwide. And, she said, it contributes to microplastics pollution on land and in water. 

“[Polystyrene is] the kind of plastic that if you break it up, you end up with lots of little, tiny pellets,” which Register said tend to look like the eggs of frogs or other small animals. 

Virginia became one of the earliest states nationwide to pass a ban on polystyrene takeout containers in 2021. It was set to take effect in 2023 for chains with 20 or more locations and 2025 for the rest of the state’s restaurants — until being adjusted by this year’s budget

Robert Melvin is the director of government affairs for the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging and Travel Association, which lobbied for the change. He told VPM News the five-year delay in Virginia’s polystyrene ban was largely an economic decision with the bottom line of small restaurateurs in mind.  

“This problem is acutely impacting the hospitality industry, including the restaurants we represent,” Melvin said.  

Costs for small business owners have always been a part of the discussion, since expanded polystyrene containers are very cheap. But Melvin said supply-chain issues — brought on in part by skyrocketing takeout demand during the initial COVID-19 lockdowns — have increased costs on all types of takeout containers, exacerbating the burden of phasing out polystyrene. 

Register agreed that alternatives are more expensive but argued that increased demand brought on by government mandates for more environmentally friendly options would continue to lessen costs. 

“I really don’t think large food chains need an additional five years to figure out how to work to reduce this form of plastic pollution,” Register said. 

Melvin said there are other environmental considerations to make. Primarily, he cited the advanced recycling industry – which Gov. Glenn Youngkin threw his support behind earlier this year in an executive order.  

Advanced recycling is a growing industry which mostly uses chemicals and heat to break plastics down into their constituent parts, which can then be reused. There are applications for polystyrene in the field, though recycling rates for the foam in the U.S. are low — the EPA recorded a rate of less than 1% in 2018.  

Youngkin’s order also repealed a plastic bottle ban for state agencies. 

Register argued that developing a new industry to recycle polystyrene and other plastics misses the point of waste reduction. 

“You notice that your bathtub is overflowing, water all over the floor. The first thing you do is not stop to clean it up, the first thing you do is turn off the faucet,” Register said. 

Alongside Youngkin’s executive order, state boards and lawmakers have been considering policies that would increase access to all types of recycling in the commonwealth as an alternative to landfilling or incineration for energy. Some local recycling programs have collapsed in recent years after China stopped importing recyclable plastic, greatly reducing demand. 

Data from the Department of Environmental Quality says Virginia achieved a 45% general recycling rate in 2020. 

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.