Will this be the year Virginia imposes a plastic bag tax?

By: - November 26, 2019 12:02 am

A crow chews on a plastic bag in downtown Richmond. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

As localities all around the U.S. move to discourage the use of plastics, Virginia will once again mull taxing an item so common that most people encounter it every single day: the plastic bag.

The debate isn’t new. This year’s General Assembly will mark the sixth time Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, has proposed some sort of plastic bag tax or fee and at least the eighth time Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, has. Every year the proposals have stalled, blocked by lawmakers concerned with either the intrusion of government into individual behavior or the objections of retailers and manufacturers.

But this year could be different, both Petersen and Ebbin believe.

“I think it’s going to happen,” said Petersen.

Ebbin agreed: “We do have a Democratic majority that is more environmentally oriented and more predisposed to local control of many issues, including this one,” he said.

Plastic bags have become a popular target for policymakers seeking to address Americans’ ever-growing concerns about the environment. The bags, once hailed as a triumph of chemistry, convenience and consumption, are now just as likely to be seen as an insidious form of pollution that clogs waterways, kills marine and other species and smothers aquatic vegetation.

In response, more than 400 plastic bag bans or taxes have been enacted by state and local governments. But Virginia has proved unfavorable ground for the proposals to take root because of both its eagerness to remain business friendly and its embrace of the Dillon Rule, a legal principle that says that local governments can only exercise those powers explicitly granted them by the state. Under that framework, localities can only tax those things that the legislature has outright said they can tax — and so far, plastic bags haven’t been on that list.

Ebbin’s bill takes on the Dillon restriction head on: His proposal would allow any interested local government to impose a five-cent tax on disposable plastic or paper bags given to customers of grocery, convenience and drug stores. The business would be allowed to keep one cent of the tax, with the remaining four cents distributed to the locality.

Letting individual localities decide whether to embrace the tax would make it “easier to start implementing” reductions, said Ebbin, while the inclusion of paper would help offset the pollution associated with paper manufacturing and transportation, as well as the material’s slow rate of decomposition in landfills.

In contrast, Petersen’s bill focuses only on plastic bags, but rather than allowing localities to decide if they want their own tax, it would impose one outright on all localities that fall fully within the Chesapeake Bay watershed. As in Ebbin’s plan, one cent would be set aside for the retailer, but the remaining four cents would be channeled into efforts to meet the state’s Bay restoration commitments.

“It’s not that plastic bags are inherently evil,” said Petersen. But, he pointed out, the Chesapeake Bay watershed faces specific challenges of plastic pollution that his legislation seeks to overcome.

“We’ve got a specific issue here,” he said. But “if people want to make it statewide, sure.”

Not everyone is excited about the proposals, however. Brett Vassey, president and CEO of the Virginia Manufacturers Association, described bans and taxes on plastic bags as “the symptomatic result of an inadequate recycling infrastructure” and instead advocated for alternative approaches that would create a “circular economy of plastics” in which 100 percent of all plastics would be reused, recycled or recovered by 2040.

“Virginia, like most states, we are at an inflection point where we need to reset with the public and the regulatory agencies a new path forward for recycling, recovery and reuse of materials,” he said.

Both Ebbin’s and Petersen’s plans would exempt from taxation certain kinds of plastic or paper bags, such as those made to be reused and those used to carry products like prescriptions, ice cream, newspapers and dry cleaning.

UPDATE: This story has been updated to add comments from the Virginia Manufacturers Association.

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.