Virginia legislators have struck what one lawmaker is calling "the great polystyrene compromise of 2021" that would ban expanded PS food containers in return for giving the industry new rules it wants for chemical recycling plants in the state.
Separate bills that banned EPS takeout food packaging and supported chemical recycling had each run into problems in the state capitol in Richmond, but lawmakers have struck an agreement allowing both to move ahead, with a delay in the EPS ban until at least 2023.
"This is part of a large compromise," said state Sen. John Petersen, D-Fairfax, in a floor debate on the EPS ban. "To the extent that we get this [EPS ban] bill off the floor and pass it, I think it's important that there will be a reciprocal understanding. … The recycling industry needs to be respected."
Shortly after Petersen's comments, the state Senate passed the EPS ban bill Feb. 17 on a 21-16 vote. Virginia's House of Delegates had passed a similar foam ban in January, on a 58-40 vote.
Following the compromise agreement, the state House then passed the chemical recycling law Feb. 22 in a 90-8 vote. The state Senate had already approved it in early February.
The Virginia agreement marries two measures that have been gaining ground separately in other states, and it may be the first time that support for chemical recycling legislation is explicitly linked to a plastics ban.
Virginia joins states including Maine, Maryland and New York in banning EPS food packaging. Conversely, it joins nine other states in passing legislation supporting chemical, or advanced, recycling.
The state's EPS bill requires larger chain restaurants to stop using the containers by July 1, 2023, with smaller restaurants, food trucks and others having to comply by July 1, 2025.
Petersen, who used the "great polystyrene compromise" language, argued that the EPS ban is needed "to make a commitment about basically getting this product out of our waste stream."
He said he opposed the EPS bill when it came close to passing last year but told his colleagues he had changed position and was pushing it through this year because the main author, Del. Betsy Carr, D-Richmond, had moved back the compliance dates.
Petersen said he saw it as a "tough issue" because restaurants widely use the material, but he said he thought companies could find alternatives and he pointed to problems with polystyrene recyclability.
"I think the best explanation is, in America, ingenuity fills a vacuum," Petersen said. "We have a product in [foam] that contributes to pollution in a way that really no other plastic waste does. It's not recyclable."
But others in the chamber argued for the recyclability of PS. Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, for example, said that "to the extent that anybody believes that there is no recycling solution, you're wrong, absolutely wrong."
As well, Sen. Jen Kiggans, R-Virginia Beach, worried about removing an inexpensive packaging material from restaurants, saying that when she gets takeout food, "the places that give me the ... foam containers are the places that are struggling the most right now."
Environmental Protection Agency figures show that just 3.6 percent of polystyrene packaging was recycled in 2018, the last year statistics are available.
That's well below the 13.6 percent for all plastic containers and packaging and the 25.4 percent for PET packaging, the highest for plastics in the EPA data.