Northam Plastics Order Will Backfire


by Brett Vassey

Governor Northam recently issued Executive Order 77 (EO 77) mandating all state agencies (including colleges and universities) to ban purchasing or using certain plastics products (primarily foodservice and trash bags) by October 2021, ban plastic bottled water, phase out all single-use plastic items by 2025, source and use non-plastic alternatives, and compost or recycle alternative products.

EO 77 falsely assumes that alternatives to plastics will always be environmentally preferable — which is not the case. In fact, we can demonstrate that EO 77 will lead to increased landfilling, more greenhouse gas emissions, less food safety, fewer healthy food/beverage choices, accessibility barriers for the differently abled, and increased littering.

The mandate to use and procure only non-plastic alternatives does not require assessments of their environmental impacts, costs to taxpayers or consumers, recyclability, compostability, increased greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, small business impacts, accessibility impacts, or the unintended consequences because EO 77 bypassed public participation by sidestepping compliance with the Virginia Administrative Process Act.

We estimate that replacing 14.4 million metric tons of plastic packaging would result in more than 64 million tons of other material. This would result in a significant increase in total energy demand, water consumption, solid waste by weight and by volume, global warming potential, acidification, eutrophication, smog formation, and ozone depletion. Not exactly a net environmental benefit.

These product bans and state procurement mandates were not preceded by a single conversation with Virginia’s plastics manufacturers, distributors, retailers, or recyclers. In fact, we were surprised to learn that many state agencies were equally caught off-guard. EO 77 burdens state agencies (including colleges and universities) with a cumbersome “one-size-fits-all” prescription that is a distraction from the core mission of each agency — state agencies simply should not become the “plastics police.” But confusingly, state agencies continue to recruit and provide incentives to plastics manufacturers across the Commonwealth?

Every product (including banned items and alternatives covered by EO 77) creates an environmental impact. To highlight the negative environmental impact of EO 77, let us examine transportation costs. EO 77 ignores the origin of alternative products to the banned items, regardless of whether those products are manufactured in countries such as China or Mexico, or from a domestic source outside of the Commonwealth. Transportation costs must be calculated into the GHG emissions impact of these alternative products. For example, if Virginia universities switch away plastic bottles to aluminum bottles – which consume more energy to manufacture – they must be shipped from as far away as Colorado, adding to their carbon footprint. This mandate could also cost an additional $1,000 per student, per year, adding even more to the spiraling cost of higher education. Another good example is plastic forks — 1,000 traditional plastic forks costs about the same as 140 compostable forks.

Also, popular alternative products that are marketed as “biodegradable” are often derived from bamboo which is illegal to grow in most of the Commonwealth, as it is designated as either an invasive species or noxious weed. With these limitations, the supply chain for raw materials for these products will extend to other states or countries that do not have such regulations and, thus, increase GHG and other emissions while increasing imports into Virginia.

EO 77 forces state agencies to pursue composting despite serious physical challenges with similar efforts in CA and essentially no public infrastructure in the Commonwealth (only 4 identifiable commercial facilities statewide). California recently adopted regulations instituting provisions for state agencies like those embodied in EO 77. In comments on the draft regulations, the state’s composting industry association, California Compost Coalition, indicated:

Packaging and products made from compostable materials are not welcome at a majority of compost manufacturing facilities, especially those products which are not directly associated with food scrap recovery. Likewise, compostable plastics frequently are a contamination problem for recycling facility operators and remanufacturers.

The Coalition’s letter further stated that a 2019 survey showed only 14 of 38 (37%) permitted mixed materials composting facilities in California were willing to accept compostable packaging. Simply put, studies show alternatives generally weigh four times as much as plastic and in many cases will not be compostable using Virginia’s existing infrastructure because this service is not available in over 95 percent of jurisdictions, thereby, increasing the demand for landfilling.

When it comes to Virginia small businesses – who are vendors and concessioners to state agencies (including colleges, public safety institutions, and prisons) – many will be forced to find new suppliers and reduce their profitability. As an example, at an operating profit margin of 6%, a mandated shift to alternative foodservice products could consume from 5% to nearly 40% of a small business’s entire annual profit. These small businesses already operate with razor-thin profit margins and EO 77 will likely result in higher taxpayer/consumer costs, lower profitability, and fewer vendors to the state.

Plastic packaging is also important for food safety and allows for greater consumer choice. Industry has worked with public health advocates over the last decade to improve healthy food and beverage choices for our kids (in K-12 and higher education), particularly in vending machines and institutional food service. Now, EO 77 bans bottled water and safe plastic-packaged food that will extend shelf life and often does not require refrigeration. For example, 1.5 grams of plastic packaging has been shown to extend a cucumber shelf life from 3 to 14 days. Refrigerated cheese shelf life increased from 7 days to 180 with reduced oxygen provided by plastic packaging. Safe and healthy food choices are public values that should not be limited for students, public health workers, public safety workers, and state employees.

The bottom line is that EO 77 is bad policy for Virginia’s government and taxpayers. It will force state agencies (including colleges and universities) to spend more money for fewer products. Total additional costs associated with just the nutrition expenditures regulated by EO 77 will increase 75% to 118% or $10.1 million to $15.8 million. These estimates include clamshells, beverage and portion cups, lids, containers, dinnerware (plates and bowls), food trays, and serving trays and carriers. They do not include straws, utensils, or trays for meat, poultry, fish, and eggs. Sadly, EO77 bans some of the very products that kept Virginians safe through the COVID-19 pandemic – what a disappointing recognition of public benefits.

Instead of bans and mandates, policymakers should consider encouraging recycled content use in procurement, educating the public about the necessities of reducing, reusing, and recycling all products, and partnering with industry to overhaul the Commonwealth’s recycling infrastructure while new innovations in advanced recycling and packaging design develop.

Accordingly, the Coalition for Consumer Choices recommends that Executive Order 77 be set aside to allow for more comprehensive recommendations that result in a circular economy here in Virginia where we reuse, recycle, and recover plastic packaging. EO 77 makes Virginia far less sustainable and is perhaps the most unrealistic and overreaching regulation of its kind in the United States today. Impractical and unrealistic regulation should not be misinterpreted as leading by example.

Brett Vassey is president & CEO of the Virginia Manufacturers Association.