shopping with plastic bags

In a 9-to-1 vote, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors approved a 5 cent tax on plastic bags September 14. It will take effect January 2022.

The board adopted this first-ever tax on disposable plastic bags to “influence consumer behavior by discouraging individuals from using single-use disposable plastic bags” to work towards reducing plastic bag pollution in local waterways.

“A small fee on plastic bags is an opportunity for residents to look at their habits while providing the County with avenues for environmental cleanup, education, and access to environmentally friendly alternatives,” said Board Chairman Jeff McKay in a statement. McKay told FFXnow that the county hasn’t done any estimate on how much revenue it would generate, but any proceeds would supplement existing efforts, which he thought should prioritize litter pickup and getting reusable bags to those in need.

The tax will apply to plastic bags at grocery, convenience and drug stores. The exceptions will be plastic bags designed for reuse, bags used for perishable food items, bags for dry cleaning and waste bags sold in packages such as garbage bags. Stores will collect 5 cents per bag from the consumer, but under state law they will only remit 3 cents to the state until January 2024 when they will be required to remit 4 cents.

Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity was the lone dissenting vote despite opposition to the tax from community members, businesses and testimony from former EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler.

“My colleagues say this tax is intended to help people change their behavior, but this is not the kind of help I would want from my local government during a pandemic,” said Herrity. “We need to address litter issues which is why I’ve proposed ways to do that without taxing our residents.”

One of the proposals Herrity made included a program called No Charge, a non-profit out of Augusta County that addresses criminal justice reform for non-violent, first time offenders which was not only successful in cleaning up litter but it also saved taxpayers court costs spent processing offenders. He is also working on providing more places in the country to recycle the bags similar to the purple glass recycling bin program. “When we provide a place to dispose of things correctly and securely, they don’t end up in the environment,” he said. “Not only are plastic bags highly recyclable, but there is already a market for them in Virginia.” Herrity explained that many businesses convert recycled bags into new plastic bags, playground parts, benches and decking.

Herrity also pushed forward Operation Stream Shield, a highly successful program employing individuals experiencing homelessness while helping the county to keep streams clean through removing litter and non-native invasive plants. From March 2020 to May 2021 the program collected nearly 34,000 pounds of trash from streams, according to Meredith Martinez, policy director on Herrity’s staff.

In a two-page letter dated September 10, Food Lion Director of Operations Eric Sword outlined the company’s objections to imposing the bag tax. “While Food Lion strongly supports responsible stewardship and waste reduction efforts, complying with a patchwork of varying local single-use bag restrictions in the Commonwealth negatively impacts Food Lion’s ability to serve our customers,” he wrote. Sword said that implementing a tax on plastic bags would increase use of paper bags which are already in short supply. He projected that Food Lion would use more than 4 million paper bags per year, up from 27,600 bags in 2020. 

“Just because you can now tax us, doesn’t mean you should,” Mount Vernon resident Maureen Brody, told supervisors at the hearing. She said they presented three falsehoods regarding the bag tax on their website, the first one which is the claim that plastic bags are polluting our landscapes. “I go out every week to clean our roadsides, because the government doesn’t,” said Brody. “I rarely find plastic bags, but when I do I’m happy because I can use them to gather the most common item I find – masks. So that’s a fake reason with no data behind it.” 

The second reason listen on the site claims that the bags are meant for single use. “That’s a fallacy. The consumer uses these bags for many other purposes,” said Brody. “Moreover, you can recycle thin bags at the store. So your policy here is just upside down.” She went on to call their claim that the money collected will be used to fund reduction and education a joke. “The one thing you don’t mention is paying to administer the program. It’s all half-baked with no purpose and no plan for execution – including enforcement.”

Former EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, who spoke in opposition of the tax and called it regressive, is also a resident of Fairfax County. “I’m afraid no matter what the good intentions might be on the plastic bag tax proposal, that I have to adamantly oppose the tax,” he said. “It is misguided and could ultimately do more environmental harm than good, and taxes like these disproportionately impact low-income families, senior citizens and others on fixed incomes.”

Wheeler called the tax an optical band-aid. “Taxes such as these have little to no effect on the problem at hand, and in fact make people incorrectly believe they have solved the recycling problem when they have not,” he said. “The heart of the crisis is that as Americans we don’t do a good enough job sorting our recycling materials which has led to not enough pure separated waste streams to support new products made from recycled materials.” He went on to say that the tax will end up creating a greater carbon impact on the environment through the use of cotton totes and reusable plastic bags. “Solutions such as education programs and more locations to recycle disposable bags will do more to solve our recycling problems,” he said, concluding that the high level of taxes is a real problem the board should try to address.

“Residents have seen a 45 percent increase in their taxes over the last decade, inflation is rising at the fastest rate in 12 years, on top of the impacts of the pandemic during which many have lost their loves ones, homes, jobs and businesses,” said Herrity. “It should go without saying that this is the wrong time for a new tax, especially one that will disproportionately impact people who are already struggling.”

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