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Virginia Restaurants grapple with plastic foam container ban

From vermicelli bowls to crispy chicken, Pho Luca’s, a Vietnamese-owned Richmond restaurant, uses plastic foam containers to package takeout meals. That may soon change after the General Assembly recently passed a bill banning such takeout containers.

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By David Tran

From vermicelli bowls to crispy chicken, Pho Luca’s, a Vietnamese-owned Richmond restaurant, uses plastic foam containers to package takeout meals. That may soon change after the General Assembly recently passed a bill banning such packaging.

After negotiations on a Senate amendment, the House agreed in a 57-39 vote last week on an amendment to House Bill 1902, which bans nonprofits, local governments and schools from using polystyrene takeout containers. The Senate passed the amended bill in a 24-15 vote.

“We’re just leveling the playing field,” said Del. Betsy B. Carr, D-Richmond, about the amendment. “So not only do restaurants, but nonprofits and schools will be subject to this ban in 2025.”

Food chains with 20 or more locations cannot package and dispense food in polystyrene containers as of July 2023. Remaining food vendors have until July 2025. Food vendors in violation of the ban can receive up to $50 in civil penalty each day of violation.

Carr said she is glad Virginia is taking the lead to curb plastic pollution and that the measure will “make our environment cleaner and safer for all of our citizens (by) not having Styrofoam in the ditches and in the water and in the food that we consume.”

This is the second year the bill was sent to a conference committee. Last year’s negotiation resulted in a reenactment clause stipulating the bill couldn’t be enacted until it was approved again this year by the General Assembly.

The COVID-19 pandemic loomed over this year’s bill dispute as businesses shift to single-use packaging, such as polystyrene, to limit contamination.

Lawmakers skeptical of the polystyrene ban spoke out on the Senate floor, arguing the ban will hurt small businesses who rely on polystyrene foam containers, which are known for their cheaper cost.

“The places that give me these Styrofoam containers are the places that are struggling the most right now,” said Sen. Jen A. Kiggans, R-Virginia Beach.

The pandemic has financially impacted the restaurant industry. In 2020, Virginia’s food services sector lost more than 20% of its employees from 2019, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Like many small businesses, Pho Luca’s has relied on polystyrene foam takeout packaging because it is affordable and functional.

Dominic Pham, owner of Pho Luca’s, said he has been in contact with several vendors that sell polystyrene alternatives, but it has been a challenge for Pham to find suitable alternatives.

Pho Luca’s currently uses plastic foam containers that cost about a nickel per container, Pham said. The alternatives will cost about 55 cents more. However, Pham said he is willing to make the change, recognizing that polystyrene containers are detrimental to the environment.

Pham said he distributed surveys to consumers on the possibility of raising prices to offset the cost of polystyrene alternatives. The results were overwhelmingly positive.

“Even if we have to upcharge them a dollar for the recyclable, reusable containers, people (are) happy to do that, they don’t mind,” Pham said.

The use of plastic foam containers has risen during the COVID-19 pandemic. Several states and cities have reversed or delayed restrictions and bans on single-use plastics since April 2020, according to a USA Today report.

The pandemic also has resulted in an increase in single-use plastics, such as plastic bags and personal protective equipment. A 2020 report in the Environmental Science & Technology journal estimated plastic packaging to increase 14% as consumers seek out prepackaged items due to sanitary concerns.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic sparked renewed interest in single-use plastics, environmental organizations and businesses have spoken against the use of plastic foam containers. Polystyrene biodegrades slowly and rarely can be recycled, posing a risk to wildlife and human health, according to Environment Virginia.

MOM’s Organic Market, a mid-Atlantic grocery chain, has used compostable containers and cups since 2005.

“I think that it’s the right thing to do for the environment, for communities, for our residents,” said Alexandra DySard, the grocery chain’s environment and partnership manager.

DySard said purchasing compostable takeout containers instead of polystyrene foam containers has not financially hurt the chain. She said using a plastic lid that can be recycled locally is a better alternative than using polystyrene foam.

Polystyrene alternatives will become more affordable and accessible the more businesses use those products, DySard said.

“If it’s a statewide change, that’s kind of the best case scenario because everybody makes the change at once,” Dysard said. “And it’s driving demand for the product up and costs down.”

The bill now heads to the governor’s desk. If signed, Virginia will join states such as Maryland and Maine to ban polystyrene foam containers.

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Trevor Dickerson is the co-founder and editor of RVAhub.com, lover of all things Richmond, and a master of karate and friendship for everyone.

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Community

Historic Slave Trail at Ancarrow’s Landing Closed for Bridge Work

The closure is to work on bridges.

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From RVA Trail Report

The Historic Slave Trail at Ancarrow’s Landing will be temporarily closed while the Trail Crew rebuilds the three worn bridges along the river. Please follow the detour signs during this time.

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Community

Pipeline Update Work Continues

The hope is that work will finish up at the end of this month. Work is taking longer than expected.

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From RVAH20:

Our work continues! It’s progressing! And it’s slower than we thought it was going to be.

Our team is doing detailed, meticulous work with an abundance of care, and doing it right! They’ve also faced some less-than-ideal weather and river levels that were too high.

Our crew is essentially papier-mâché-ing a 43.13″ diameter elevated pipe located in the James River (one of our more tricky, but also more beautiful, work locations) with layers on layers of mesh and more mesh and different sized mesh and epoxy. Before all that, our crews clean each pipe segment with acetone wipes to allow for excellent adherence.

Most importantly, we are SO sorry for the delayed repair process at Pipeline–we know no one likes an elongated trail closure, but we can’t rush this important work.

We appreciate your patience as we complete these repairs to protect the James River and your health and safety when you visit this spot so many of us favor!
The latest we heard was a hope that repairs would be complete by the end of this month. We will keep you updated as we move toward that end-of-October target!
Following the completion of the repairs, our team will once again CCTV (closed-circuit television) the pipe to get an internal look. Only after we check our work and give it the green light will the trail and beaches alongside it be reopened. Until then, Pipeline trail and its adjacent beaches are closed from Brown’s Island (under the 9th Street bridge) to the downstream, eastern end of the trail behind Virginia Street and Vistas On The James.
And, finally, an important reminder: all wastewater flows have been diverted upstream at Tredegar, so any flow you may see leaking at Pipeline currently is river water that’s seeping in from Haxall Canal, groundwater, and/or stormwater from rainfall.

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Downtown

Carmela’s Turning Off Pizza Ovens for Good

Carmela has been serving up pizza in Shockoe Bottom for the past three years.

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Posted to Facebook yesterday:

To our dearest customers, after careful consideration, we have decided to close our doors. We like to express our deepest gratitude to you all for your support and love for Carmela’s pizza over the past 3 years!
We like to thank our whole Carmela’s team, past and present. We’re so proud of what we’ve accomplished together and couldn’t have done it without your talent and great effort of everyone involved!!
We’re just incredibly thankful for the opportunity to have opened such a beautiful pizzeria. This may not be a goodbye forever, but for now, it’s the right choice for our family.
Thank you again for the sweet memories and for allowing us to serve you RVALots of love,
Victor & Melinda
Carmela’s
Carmela’s was located on 3 N 17th Street.

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