Less than a year after a 2020 Virginia law authorized local governments to impose a 5-cent tax on certain disposable plastic bags, cities and counties have chosen to cut plastic waste.

“We have a long-standing commitment to getting rid of the bags,” said Nell Boyle, Sustainability Awareness Coordinator for the Town of Roanoke, who this month of May became the first town in Virginia to adopt the bag tax. “Beyond the litter and its unsightly appearance, the damage to our storm system and storm sewers was probably the biggest factor. ”

Several towns and counties in Virginia had been asking for the power to tax plastic bags for years. But because Virginia is a Dillon Rule state, where local governments have only the powers explicitly granted to them by the state legislature, interested localities were blocked until 2020, when the ascendant New Democrats took over. pushes twin bills through the General Assembly.

“One of the things we have asked for over the years is the authority and the tools to better regulate and manage plastic pollution, including plastic bags,” said James Walkinshaw, Fairfax County Supervisor. “So we were very happy in 2020 when we got this authority. ”

Four localities have adopted the tax and three others weigh in passing one. The 2020 law set out a specific set of conditions under which cities and counties can impose the 5-cent tax. (While many environmental activists say the payment should more properly be referred to as a “fee,” state code explicitly defines it as a tax.) Only disposable plastic bags from grocery stores, convenience stores, and drugstores can be taxed; those used for perishable foods like ice cream, meat and products are exempt, as are those specially designed for multiple reuse.

Other provisions specify that county and city tax revenues are to be used for environmental clean-up, waste reduction education or the provision of reusable bags to certain recipients of federal aid. Until January 1, 2023, affected retailers will be allowed to keep 2 cents on each payment, with collection decreasing to 1 cent thereafter.

“Now it’s printed and it’s official”

Local governments officially received the new power on January 1, 2021, but many were reluctant to exercise it immediately. The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed Fairfax, Walkinshaw said, while others decided to wait for the state’s tax department to issue final guidelines for local ordinances on September 1.

After the advice appeared, however, the floodgates opened. On September 14, Fairfax’s board of directors voted to institute the plastic bag tax, a move quickly followed by elected officials from Arlington and Alexandria.

The rapid succession of votes was deliberate, said Walkinshaw: “One of the things we have asked our staff to do is coordinate with our counterparts in the region to discuss what language we are considering and try to make sure that they are as uniform as possible. ”

Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-30th, of Alexandria, who was one of the sponsors of the 2020 law, said coordination between local governments would be “good for buyers in Northern Virginia to be aware of of the policy and to see it applied in a coherent way “.

Also, Walkinshaw said, uniformity could help allay grocery chain concerns about dealing with a patchwork of different regulations across the region.

“The good news for them is that it looks like this concern will be resolved,” he said. “The ordinances will be, if not exactly the same, very close to that. ”

Other local governments are also considering the option.

Prince William County spokeswoman Sherrie Johnson said in an email that “any plastic bag tax proposal would be brought forward as part of the county executive’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2023 for consideration by the board of directors in February “.

Fredericksburg City Council has taken the first of two votes needed to establish the tax: the first received unanimous support, city spokeswoman Sonja Cantu wrote in an email, and the board will proceed. to its final vote at its September 28 meeting.

Loudoun leaders also discussed the introduction of the tax, although the county’s public affairs office did not respond to two inquiries.

In Roanoke, sustainability coordinator Boyle said many local officials are waiting to take action until state guidelines are released.

“We saw these guidelines finalized, and there was nothing particularly shocking about it,” she said. “But now it’s in print and it’s official, so I think a lot more people will adopt it.”

Supporters hope the tax will prompt shoppers to switch to reusable bags, reducing the number of plastics ending up in waterways and landfills.

“In fact, I don’t think their effectiveness is in dispute,” Walkinshaw said. “There is a lot of research and studies demonstrating their effectiveness in reducing the use of plastic bags and reducing pollution.

Others are more skeptical.

Parker Slaybaugh, executive director of the Virginia Food Industry Association, a trade group that represents grocery stores, said taxes on plastic bags often push consumers not toward reusable bags, but toward paper bags. The production of paper bags also leads to negative impacts on the environment, including deforestation, air pollution and overuse of water resources, he argued.

“When you put a tax on a bag and there’s always a free option there, it doesn’t necessarily change the behavior of how localities think it will,” he said. .

While Slaybaugh said the VFIA preferred that no tax be imposed on bags – “Our position has always been, let’s leave it pretty much alone” – the group could be open to legislation extending the tax to disposable paper bags.

“I think we would take a close look at legislation that would treat plastic the same as paper and would probably be prepared to support something like that,” he said.

In the meantime, with the widespread transmission of the Delta variant, he recommended that local governments delay the enactment of the new tax until the pandemic is over to avoid distracting retailers from security and dealing with it. new surges in curbside demand and delivery.

The American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance, an industry group representing American plastic bag manufacturers and recyclers that describes itself as “the front line defense against plastic bags. nationwide bans and taxes, ”also fought the adoption of the bag tax. In a memo to Fairfax’s board of directors, director Zachary Taylor argued that “while taxing plastic bags can reduce their use, research shows that these policies can trigger unintended consequences and be counterproductive for sustainable development efforts ”.

Instead, the group suggested that the county take measures such as revising its waste laws, promoting recycling, “investing in proper trash cans” and setting up educational campaigns – recommendations that Walkinshaw called “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 taxpayers should bear this burden.”

In Roanoke, Boyle said it would take several years to see the results of the policy.

“Typically there is a large collection of the tax in the first year, and in the second year it goes down dramatically,” she said.

Unlike most taxes, however, local governments hope to see lower revenues.

“We want this 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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