VIRGINIA — State agencies across the Commonwealth of Virginia are being challenged to phase out single-use plastics, according to a new executive order from Gov. Ralph Northam.
Executive Order 77, which was signed by the governor on Mar. 23, targets the state’s reliance on single-use plastics by eliminating their use at state agencies, colleges, and universities, imposing a short-term ban on several common, disposable plastics and requiring the phasing out of other items by 2025.
How the executive order will make an impact
That’s only four years away, so how exactly is this order going to change things?
First of all, the order only focuses on the executive branch state agencies, including state institutions of higher education. It does not include private owned businesses and schools, so plastic isn’t completing going away.
For the state agencies, they are required to discontinue buying, selling, or distributing items such as disposable plastic bags, single-use plastic and polystyrene food service containers, plastic straws and cutlery, and single-use plastic water bottles within 120 days.
The order includes short-term exemptions for items necessary for medical, public health, or public safety uses. It also provides for long-term exemptions for medical and emergency applications.
At the same time, the order includes phasing out all of the non-medical, single-use plastics by 25% in December 2022, 50% by December 2023, eventually a complete ban by December 2025.
This ban isn’t an “all at once” scenario; it is a somewhat gradual process of phasing out of single use plastics so that agencies have some time to make the switch.
At the executive level, the order also directs Matthew Strickler, Virginia’s secretary of natural resources, to report to the Governor on any recommendations to reduce solid waste and how to divert as much waste as possible from landfills through composting, beneficial reuse, enhanced recycling, and other strategies.
Gov. Northam also signed House Bill 533, sponsored by Delegate Betsy Carr, which bans the use of expanded polystyrene food service containers, known as Styrofoam, for all food vendors by 2025.
How plastics end up in landfills
But what about recycling? Doesn’t that keep plastic out of landfills?
What about recycling, indeed.
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, less than 9% of plastics are recycled in the United States, compared with 91% disposed of in landfills or incinerators. This is because most types of plastics are not easily recycled or economically recyclable.
“Since 2011, solid waste disposed of at landfills and incinerators in Virginia has grown from two million tons to nearly 23 million tons per year,” according to the March 23 news release from Northam’s office.
So recycling isn’t really doing much.
When plastic does get to the landfill, it doesn’t magically go away. Plastic is not biodegradable, meaning microorganisms can’t break it down, so the plastic ends up as litter on land and in waters, the news release said.
“Virginia cannot protect the health of Virginians and ensure environmental justice without eliminating its reliance on plastics. Single-use plastics cause long lasting damage to our environment and waterways and impacts the health of vulnerable communities and people of color the hardest,” Kate Addleson, Director of the Sierra Club Virginia Chapter, said in a statement on March 23.
The danger of microplastics
Alright, so there is a lot of plastic, more than is recyclable. Wow, great.
But then why is it suddenly so important to phase out plastic use? Companies have been using plastic since its popularization after World War II, so what’s the harm?
Plastic is actually more harmful than you think, and the way it breaks down poses a large threat to both people and our general environment.
Microplastics is the name given to the small plastic pieces less than five millimeters long. They occur when larger plastic debris degrades into smaller and smaller pieces over time, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
They come from plastic bags, food containers, toothbrushes, toys, and yes, even some of your clothing.
According to a 2019 study ‘Human Consumption of Microplastics’ published in the Environmental Science and Technology journal, a person consumes anywhere between 39,000 and 52,000 microplastic particles depending on age and sex. With inhalation in consideration, those estimates increase to 74,000 and 121,000 particles a year.
Depending on how a person stays hydrated also determines how much plastic they consume.
Drinking bottled water added about 90,000 more particles to a person’s annual plastic consumption, a dramatic difference compared to those who only drink tap water and ingest about 4,000 microplastics.
Here’s the scary part: These numbers present the minimum amount of plastic consumption.
The study noted the foods analyzed only made up about 15% of the average American diet, so the particles people are actually consuming could be much higher.
Another study done by the University of Newcastle, Australia noted the amount most people eat in a week is 5 grams.
That’s the same amount as a credit card, a week.
So then what happens when you ingest that much plastic?
Well, here’s another issue: Few studies have looked into what actually happens when humans eat plastic.
One study published by the National Library of Medicine found the distribution and accumulation of microplastics across mice tissues and “revealed significant alteration in several biomarkers that indicate potential toxicity from MPs exposure. Collectively, our data provided new evidence for the adverse consequences of MPs.”
Another study at King’s College London suggested that, over time, the cumulative effect of ingesting plastic could be toxic. What those specific effects are and at what amount of consumption do they occur is still relatively unknown.
So overtime, plastics have the potential to expose people and creatures to toxic chemicals that could have various health effects.
It is also believed that, much like the myth about eating gum and it staying inside of you for seven years, while you shouldn’t eat plastic, your body will eventually flush it out. However, there is only so much your body can flush out versus the amount of plastic being consumed.
What is definitely for sure is that many more studies need to be done in order for us to understand the true consequences of plastic consumption.
Working towards the solution
Although Executive Order 77 doesn’t bring an end to all plastic production, it’s still a step in the right direction.
Northam made the announcement of the new executive order during the 31st annual Environment Virginia Symposium hosted by the Virginia Military Institute on March 23.
“As a large producer of solid waste, the Commonwealth must lead by example and transition away from single-use disposable plastics to create a cleaner, more sustainable future for all Virginians,” Northam said in a statement from the March 23 news release.
So far, 26 states have passed legislation to ban plastic in some form, whether by throwing an ax on plastic grocery bags or stopping use of plastic drinking straws.
Though the passing of this executive order only has power over state-run agencies, it’s a start for Virginia to work towards a future where everyday items have a lessened chance of affecting both people and the environment’s well-being.
“Executive order 77 is an encouraging first step to combat the issue of plastic pollution at its source,” Addleson said in a statement. “Virginia should continue to embrace policies that phase out SUPs in order to preserve our climate, safeguard our water, and protect the health of Virginians.”
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