Five-cent taxes on single-use plastic bags are spreading across Virginia’s more urban localities. On Saturday, Arlington County and the City of Alexandria adopted the local tax ordinances, while Fairfax County adopted a similar ordinance on September 14. The taxes take effect on January 1, 2022.
“Arlington is proud to take this step to reduce plastic bag waste in our community and to do so with our regional partners,” Arlington County Board Chair Matt de Ferranti said in a press release. “We have long sought the legal authority for this small fee as a way to protect our environment and become a more sustainable community. We look forward to working with residents and neighbors on implementation.”
The tax was legalized by the 2020 General Assembly. HB 534, introduced by Delegate Betsy Carr (D-Richmond), and SB 11, introduced by Senator Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria), authorize localities to enact five-cent taxes on disposable plastic bags and require the localities to use revenue from the tax for environmental cleanup and to provide re-usable bags. The tax revenue can only be used for environment cleanup, education to reduce environmental waste, and to provide reusable bags to customers on low-income food benefits programs.
Retailers are also allowed to keep a small percentage of the tax to offset their own costs related to implementing the tax. Through January 2023, retailers can keep two cents of the tax from each plastic bag to help offset their costs, but after 2023, they can only keep one cent.
Fairfax, Arlington, and Alexandria coordinated the passage of the tax in their localities.
“The City of Alexandria, Arlington County and Fairfax County have been working closely with the Northern Virginia Regional Waste Management Board to align outreach, education, timelines and common language for the localities to ensure consistency and clarity,” the press release states.
In April, Fairfax County Office of Environmental and Energy Coordination Deputy Director Susan Hafeli told The Virginia Star that Fairfax and other members of the Northern Virginia Regional Commission were waiting for additional clarification from the Department of Taxation.
On September 1, the department issued its guidelines, which are meant to help localities comply with Virginia law. They include exceptions for durable plastic bags made for reuse, plastic bags for perishables to prevent contamination, plastic bags for dry cleaning and prescription drugs, and plastic bags sold in bulk for waste. Grocery stores, convenience stores, and drugstores are required to charge the tax on each individual bag.
“We’ve heard opposition from community members, businesses, you got the letter from Food Lion on the impact that this is going to have on the grocery stores,” Herrity said. “This plastic bag tax is being considered while we’re still dealing with the pandemic and gas prices are rising, inflation has risen at the fastest rate in 12 years. Unemployment is still a struggle for many families, and real estate taxes increased 45 percent over the last decade. It’s the wrong time for any new tax, especially one that will disproportionately impact lower-income households and businesses.”
“You don’t have to pay for a bag if you take saving our planet seriously and you want to avoid it, I encourage you to. I hope we don’t collect a penny,” Chairman Jeff McKay said in the meeting. “It is those most vulnerable neighborhoods where plastic bags are in abundance. But they’re in abundance in the parks, on the walking paths that kids take to schools. Every year, one of the worst things about the leaves falling from the trees is as soon as that happens and you look into any patch of trees along the road, you suddenly see the hundreds of plastic bags that are caught in there like a catcher’s mitt.”
In Fairfax, the vote passed nine to one. The Arlington County Board passed their ordinance unanimously, as did the Alexandria City Council. In 2020, neighboring Northern Virginia locality Loudoun County voted to enact a similar tax effective July 2022.
“A decrease in plastic carryout bags will lessen our environmental impact and improve quality of life for our Eco-City by reducing the plastic bags littering our roads and local waterways,” Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson said in the press release. “This action, coupled with continuing outreach and education that empowers our residents as active partners in these efforts, is one of the many important steps Alexandria and our neighboring jurisdictions are taking toward achieving environmental sustainability.”
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