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Katie Register column: Virginia's plastic pollution challenge
It All Adds Up

Katie Register column: Virginia's plastic pollution challenge

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What can I tell you about litter in Virginia that you haven’t seen with your own eyes?

Litter increasingly is in plain sight. Bottles, cans, cups, straws and food wrappers are discarded without a thought on our roadways.

This trash then travels via stormwater and ends up in our rivers, bays and ocean. About 60% to 80% of trash in Earth’s oceans comes from our behavior on land; the rest comes from boats and fishing.

We need only look around us at the litter we see every day to also see how much we use a permanent material — plastic — for temporary uses.

Annually in Virginia, there are hundreds if not thousands of litter cleanup events from the smallest (one landowner removing litter from her roadside property) to the larger events that engage thousands of community members. Sadly, in 2020, the pandemic reduced the number of Virginia volunteers, organized by Clean Virginia Waterways of Longwood University, from the usual 7,000 to 1,700.

The 2020 data collected by dedicated volunteers showed that (like most years) the Top 10 list is dominated by food and beverage-related single-use items — most made of plastic:

1) Cigarette butts

2) Food wrappers

3) Beverage bottles (plastic)

4) Beverage cans

5) Grocery bags (plastic)

6) Takeout/takeaway containers (foam and plastic)

7) Bottle caps (plastic)

8) Beverage bottles (glass)

9) Cups, plates (foam and plastic)

10) Straws, stirrers

Plastic litter, most of it related to food and beverages, was 83% of trash on Virginia’s beaches during a study by the Virginia Aquarium, funded by the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program, a network of state agencies and coastal localities.

Cleaning up is part of the solution, but is only remedial, not preventive.

We need a sea change — we need to “turn off the faucet” of plastic single-use waste in our lives.

Growing concern about plastic pollution is leading to increased willingness to take action through laws, policies and individual commitments.

Gov. Ralph Northam’s Executive Order 77 calls for state agencies and state-funded universities to stop the use of plastics and polystyrene items in favor of better alternatives. When students return to classes in late August, disposable plastic bags, single-use plastic and polystyrene food service containers, plastic straws and cutlery, and single-use plastic water bottles will not be on campuses.

Virginia has made some progress — polystyrene food containers (often called “Styrofoam”) will be phased out over the next four years, and it now is illegal to litter any helium-filled balloons into the air. Local governments now have authority to place 5-cent fees on single-use plastic bags. Funds raised from this fee will help local communities prevent and clean up litter.

More can be done. With a population of 8.5 million people, Virginia generates less than $4 million per year from its Litter Tax. The tax ($20 per year) is paid by businesses that sell groceries and beverages. Litter tax funds are insufficient to cover the costs associated with prevention and removal of mismanaged solid waste. For example, a trash trap installed in a stream in Fairfax County in 2020 cost more than $550,000 to install, and nearly $50,000 per year to maintain. Virginia can look to other states as it considers right-sizing the litter tax. For example, Washington State (population 7.5 million) generates $11.4 million annually from its litter tax.

The soon-to-be-released updated Virginia Marine Debris Reduction Plan by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration-funded Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program provides a road map to reduce single-use litter, derelict fishing gear, abandoned boats and microplastic debris.

The Virginia Plastic Pollution Prevention Network, founded in 2020, is linking groups across the commonwealth. The newly formed Plastic Waste Prevention Advisory Council will advise the General Assembly on further actions to reduce plastic pollution, litter and marine debris. Solutions could include creating an economically sustainable bottle deposit program (a “bottle bill”) or increasing the responsibility of producers.

Laws and policies are only part of the solution. Our daily choices and decisions matter tremendously. Choose reusable bags, coffee mugs and water bottles. And pick up litter — whether on your own or as part of a community effort. It all adds up.

Katie Register is executive director of Clean Virginia Waterways of Longwood University and co-founder of the Virginia Plastic Pollution Prevention Network. She has organized statewide litter cleanups since 1995. Contact her at:


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