RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed an executive order on Thursday that aims to increase recycling and lure clean energy businesses to Virginia. Environmental advocates are criticizing the directive for ending a push to ban single-use plastics.

Youngkin’s executive order rescinds and replaces a previous order from former Gov. Ralph Northam that directed state agencies, colleges and universities to stop buying, selling or distributing single-use plastic bottles, disposable plastic bags, polystyrene food containers and other similar items.

“People talk about banning things and think they’ve solved the problem. In fact, the reality is, we need to talk about recycling things because, again, we’re seeing plastic manufacturing going up and recycling going down,” Youngkin told reporters. “We can either hide our heads in the sand while the waste continues to pile up, or we can turn our efforts to solving a problem.”

The new order establishes a “State Agency Recycling Initiative” that will instead encourage state agencies to use biodegradable materials and post-consumer recycled (PCR) products.

The directive also calls for the state to begin discussing efforts to bring recycling-related businesses to the commonwealth. Youngkin said recycling and reuse activities account for over 750,000 jobs nationwide.

Youngkin made the announcement after after touring TFC Recycling in Chester, Virginia, where plastics are processed and later turned into new products like clothing and sleeping bags.

“There is a full-fledged market for recycling and it works,” Youngkin said. “When we have demand for recycled products, let’s make sure we fully provide it.”

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin gets a tour of TFC Recycling in Chester, Virginia on April 7, 2022. (Photo: Jackie DeFusco)

The Sierra Club, a national environmental group, swiftly denounced Youngkin’s order. Kate West, the Virginia chapter’s director, said in a statement that positioning recycling as 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,” West said. “Only a tiny fraction of the plastic created is recycled, with most becoming litter and plastic pollution in our waterways and landfills that disproportionately impact the health of vulnerable communities.” 

Northam’s order called for state agencies and institutions of higher education to phase out all non-medical single-use plastic and expanded polystyrene items that can be reused, composted, or recycled.

Environment Virginia State Director Elly Boehmer echoed concerns over abandoning the effort.

“We are for smart recycling solutions but we cant get there and we cant recycle our way out of this issue without first eliminating these really dangerous, hard to recycle plastics,” Boehmer said.

Within a year, the Department of Environmental Quality, along with the Department of Commerce and other stakeholders, is expected to outline possible business opportunities in a report. Youngkin’s order said the report should identify:

  • The waste-stream requirements for PCR companies to locate within the Commonwealth
  • Identify incentives offered to PCR companies in other states and identify feasible options in the Commonwealth
  • Identify potential geographic areas within the Commonwealth to focus on new clean technology business development, with particular emphasis in rural areas

The order issued by Youngkin also directs the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation to produce an assessment plan to determine the resources needed to “increase the capacity to capture recyclable materials,” including adding receptacles in Virginia’s State Parks.

Youngkin’s directive further calls for the state to work with large-scale food suppliers in an effort to reduce food waste “by encouraging donations to needy individuals, food for animals or for composting purposes.”

The Department of General Services must submit an annual report tracking the metric tonnage of the recycling program and setting goals by Dec. 31, 2022, for each succeeding year through 2025.

“You’re going to see a march up in recycling overtime because we’re going to focus on it and measure it. What gets measured, gets done,” Youngkin said.

(Photo: Jackie DeFusco)