A bird chews on a plastic bag in downtown Richmond. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
Less than a year after a 2020 Virginia law allowed local governments to impose a five-cent tax on certain disposable plastic bags, cities and counties are opting in to cut down on plastic waste.
“We’ve had a longstanding commitment to get rid of the bags,” said Nell Boyle, the sustainability outreach coordinator for the city of Roanoke, which this May became the first Virginia locality to adopt the bag tax. “Beyond the litter and the unsightliness of it, the damage to our storm system and storm drains was probably the main driver.”
Several Virginia cities and counties had sought the power to tax plastic bags for years. But because Virginia is a Dillon Rule state, where local governments have only those powers explicitly granted them by the state legislature, interested localities were stymied until 2020, when newly ascendant Democrats pushed through twin bills in the General Assembly.
“One of the things that we have asked for over the years is the authority and the tools to better regulate and deal with plastic pollution, including plastic bags,” said Fairfax County Supervisor James Walkinshaw. “So we were really pleased in 2020 when we were granted that authority.”
Four localities have adopted the tax and three more are weighing passing one. The 2020 law set out a specific set of conditions under which cities and counties can impose the five-cent tax. (While many environmental activists say the payment should more correctly be labeled a “fee,” state code explicitly defines it as a tax.) Only disposable plastic bags from grocery, convenience and drug stores can be taxed; those used for perishable foods like ice cream, meat and produce are exempt, as are those specifically designed for multiple reuse.
Other provisions specify that county and city revenues from the tax must be used for environmental cleanup, waste reduction education or the provision of reusable bags to certain recipients of federal aid. Until Jan 1, 2023, affected retailers will be allowed to retain two cents of each payment, with the collection decreasing to one cent thereafter.
‘Now it’s in print and it’s official’
Local governments officially received the new power on Jan. 1, 2021, but many hesitated to exercise it immediately. The COVID-19 pandemic slowed down Fairfax, said Walkinshaw, while others decided to wait until the state Department of Taxation issued final guidelines for local ordinances on Sept. 1.
After the guidance appeared, however, the floodgates opened. On Sept. 14, the Fairfax Board of Supervisors voted to institute the plastic bag tax, a move quickly followed by elected officials in Arlington and Alexandria.
The quick succession of votes was deliberate, said Walkinshaw: “One of the things we asked our staff to do is coordinate with our counterparts in the region to discuss the language we were considering and try to ensure they were as uniform as possible.”
Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, who was one of the 2020 law’s patrons, said the coordination between local governments would be “good for shoppers in Northern Virginia to be aware of the policy and see it applied consistently.” Furthermore, said Walkinshaw, the uniformity could help assuage concerns from grocery store chains about dealing with a patchwork of different regulations throughout the region.
“The good news for them is it looks like that concern will be addressed,” he said. “The ordinances will be, if not exactly the same, very close to it.”
Other local governments are also mulling the option.
Prince William County spokesperson Sherrie Johnson said in an email that “any proposal for a plastic bag tax would be brought forward as part of the county executive’s proposed FY2023 budget for board consideration in February.” Fredericksburg City Council has taken the first of two necessary votes to establish the tax: the first received unanimous support, wrote city spokesperson Sonja Cantu in an email, and the board will take up its final vote at its Sept. 28 meeting. Loudoun leaders too have discussed instituting the tax, although the county public affairs office didn’t respond to two inquiries.
In Roanoke, sustainability coordinator Boyle said many local officials were waiting to take action until state guidelines were released.
“We’ve seen those guidelines be finalized, and there was nothing in there that was particularly shocking,” she said. “But now it’s in print and it’s official, so I think a lot more people will take it up.”
Will the taxes work?
Supporters hope the tax will incentivize shoppers to switch to reusable bags, cutting down on the number of plastics that end up in waterways and landfills.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in 2018 — the most recent year for which data are available — the recycling rate for plastic bags, sacks and wraps was 10 percent.
In Washington, D.C., officials have said that disposable plastic bag use has dropped by 50 to 70 percent since the tax was instituted in 2009, and the number of plastic bags collected at trash cleanups on the Anacostia River have declined significantly.
“I actually don’t think their efficacy is in dispute,” said Walkinshaw. “There’s ample research and studies demonstrating their effectiveness in reducing plastic bag usage and pollution.”
Others are more skeptical.
Parker Slaybaugh, executive director of the Virginia Food Industry Association, a trade group that represents grocery stores, said plastic bag taxes often drive consumers not to reusable bags, but to paper ones. Paper bag production also leads to negative environmental impacts including deforestation, air pollution and overuse of water supplies, he argued.
“When you put a tax on one bag and there’s still a free option there, it doesn’t necessarily change behavior in the way localities think it will,” he said.
While Slaybaugh said VFIA prefers no tax be placed on bags — “Our position has always been, let’s leave well enough alone” — the group might be open to legislation extending the tax to disposable paper bags.
“I think we would take a long hard look at legislation that treated plastic the same as paper and probably would be willing to support something like that,” he said.
In the meantime, with widespread transmission of the delta variant, he recommended local governments delay enactment of the new tax until the pandemic ends to avoid shifting grocery retailers’ attention away from safety and dealing with new surges of curbside and delivery demand.
The American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance, an industry group representing U.S. plastic bag manufacturers and recyclers that describes itself as “the frontline defense against plastic bag bans and taxes nationwide,” has also fought adoption of the bag tax. In a memo to the Fairfax Board of Supervisors, Director Zachary Taylor argued that “while taxing plastic bags may reduce their use, research shows that these policies can unleash unintended consequences and be counterproductive to sustainability efforts.”
Instead, the group suggested the county take steps such as reviewing its litter laws, promoting recycling, “invest(ing) in proper waste receptacles” and running educational campaigns — recommendations Walkinshaw said he found “insulting.”
“Essentially the industry’s response to this was a bill for Fairfax County taxpayers to clean up the mess caused by their product,” he said. “I don’t think the taxpayers should bear that burden.”
In Roanoke, Boyle said it would take several years to see the results of the policy.
“Typically there’s a large collection of the tax the first year, and by the second year it drops off tremendously,” she said.
Unlike most taxes, though, local governments are hoping to see a decline in revenue.
“We want it to go away,” she said. “We don’t want people to pay the tax. We want them to bring their bag.”
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