Fairfax County Begins Exploring Tax on Plastic Bags for 2021

Fairfax County officials are in the early phases of considering the implementation of a five-cent tax on plastic bags.

In March, the Virginia General Assembly passed a state bill that allows municipalities to collect taxes on disposable bags. Gov. Ralph Northam signed the bill on April 10.

Jurisdictions can levy taxes on disposable plastic bags given by grocery stores, convenience stores, and drugstores. Tax revenues are allocated for environmental cleanup, pollution and litter management, providing educational programs to reduce environmental waste, and the funding of reusable bags to recipients of federal food support programs.

The Virginia Department of Taxation estimates the tax could generate between $20.8 million to $24.9 million in annual aggregate local revenues across the state.

A board matter approved by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors in late July also directs the Office of Environmental and Energy Coordination to create a plan to implement the plastic bag fee next year.

In a Nov. 30 memo to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, Fairfax County Executive Bryan Hill said county departments are currently “exploring the issues associated with development and implementation of a plastic bag tax ordinance.” Other jurisdictions like Arlington County have cited concerns about adopting the tax amid a pandemic due to equity-related dissues.

Hill noted that several ambiguities in the state’s ordinance need to be addressed.  For example, the ordinance does not explicitly define what constitutes a convenience store and offers scant information on how tax commissioners will enforce the tax and issue penalties for non-compliance.

“At least at this time, there appears to be no mechanism to contest a retailer’s categorization short of a court challenge and sufficient facts to support a locality’s different categorization,” Hill wrote.

The county anticipates launching a public engagement process, including public meetings and an online survey, to gauge input on the move.

If the Board of Supervisors directs staff to create a plastic bag ordinance, county departments would launch a second public engagement process and consult with county entities like the Environmental Quality Advisory Council prior to consideration by the board.

The board will discuss the issue at an Environmental Committee meeting tomorrow (Dec. 8).

Photo by Griffin Wooldridge/Unsplash

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