Youngkin promotes recycling but discards Va. program to ban plastics

By Paul Ploumis

RICHMOND — Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) issued an executive order Thursday laying out a recycling plan for state agencies but drew criticism from environmental groups for something he discarded: an order by former governor Ralph Northam (D) that required executive branch state agencies to give up single-use plastics by the end of 2025.

Instead, Youngkin outlined steps “to increase awareness of the importance of recycling and better capture recyclable material” in Executive Order 17.

“Recognizing and promoting the importance of recycling has the potential to positively impact the Commonwealth’s environment, providing cleaner air and water, as well as create new clean technology jobs,” Youngkin said in the order.

The four-page document “rescinds and replaces” Northam’s Executive Order 77, issued in March 2021, without explanation. That order required state agencies that report to the executive branch to immediately stop purchasing single-use plastic or polystyrene containers and to phase out their use over the coming four years.

Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality published guidance last year that said phasing out the use of such products is the only way to ensure that harmful plastics stop getting into the environment.

“Plastic pollution is a problem and we cannot recycle our way out of it,” the department said at the time. “Even with companies and governments making commitments to reduce plastic pollution, at least 22 million tons of waste will enter U.S. waterways over the next 10 years.”

Environmentalists echoed that language in condemning Youngkin’s action Thursday, pointing out that studies have long established that only a small fraction of plastics included in recycling programs are ever actually reused.

“The notion that recycling is a sustainable solution is a false promise promoted by polluters. Youngkin’s decision to reverse the state’s plan to phase out single-use plastics is a clear step in the wrong direction that will result in irreversible damage,” Kate West, director of the Sierra Club Virginia Chapter, said in a statement.

Without a ban to reduce the flow of plastic products, “we can’t make progress. We’re back to square one,” Sierra Club spokesman Tim Cywinski said. Several states, including Maryland, have banned the use of foam containers, which were also covered by Northam’s order. Virginia’s General Assembly passed a phased-in ban on foam containers last year but is considering delaying that ban with language in the proposed state budget that’s tied up in legislative negotiations.

Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter said via text message that Northam’s approach “is not sensible as there will be a continued market for plastic bottles, recycling and other materials. We recycle at lower levels now than a decade ago at the same time that manufacturing plastics has increased.”

The new executive order requires state agencies to identify ways to expand recycling. It gives the Department of Environmental Quality 12 months to come up with a plan to attract more recycling businesses to the state and requires the agency to come up with a strategy to reduce the amount of food waste across industries and businesses.

Youngkin also ordered the Department of General Services to monitor the state’s recycling program and come up with yearly goals.

“Too often in the past, Virginia has been presented with a false choice between saving our environment and growing our economy. The growing market for post-consumer recyclables demonstrates that we can do both,” Youngkin said in a news release announcing the order. “We need to bridge that disconnect to better conserve our natural resources, reduce waste that goes out to landfills and promote new clean energy jobs here in Virginia. We should be focusing our resources and energy on providing a cleaner supply of recyclable materials.”

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