Fairfax County to explore possible tax on disposable plastic bags

Fairfax County is looking at imposing a tax on single-use plastic bags (via Daniel Romero/Unsplash)

Fairfax County took a first step yesterday toward potentially taxing plastic bags used by grocery stores and other retailers.

The Board of Supervisors voted 9-1 yesterday (Tuesday) to direct county staff to draft an plastic bag tax ordinance, but even supporters of the measure allowed that there remains some uncertainty around how exactly the tax would be implemented if approved.

“Let’s definitely try this, but we may end up back in the General Assembly in the foreseeable future to try to get clarification,” Hunter Mill District Supervisor Walter Alcorn said, noting that the county is subject to the Dillon rule. “…This is probably a prime example of when we probably need a little more flexibility, but I’m all for it.”

The Virginia General Assembly passed legislation during its 2020 session giving localities the authority to impose a five-cent tax on disposable plastic bags, starting on Jan. 1, 2021.

Roanoke became the first jurisdiction to take advantage of the new law when it adopted an ordinance in May that’s set to take effect on Jan. 1, 2022.

Under House Bill 534, which was identical to Senate Bill 11, cities and counties can tax each disposable plastic bag provided to customers by grocery stores, convenience stores, and drugstores. The tax would not apply to plastic bags designed to be reused, garbage bags, bags used to hold or package food to avoid damage or contamination, and ones used to carry prescription drugs or dry cleaning.

The legislation allows retailers to retain two cents from the imposed tax on each bag until Jan. 1, 2023, when the amount that goes to retailers drops to one cent.

That “dealer discount” provision is intended to help offset additional expenses retailers might incur from adjusting their operations, but it also puts added pressure on localities to adopt an ordinance as soon as possible, according to Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay.

“We want to start the process of the ordinance review, looking at the language, the public input, because the clock literally is ticking,” McKay said.

Complicating matters is the fact that the Virginia Department of Taxation has not yet released guidelines clarifying what a plastic bag tax ordinance should look like, leaving questions around the definition of a grocery or convenience store, how the tax will be enforced, and other issues, County Executive Bryan Hill told the board in a Nov. 30 memorandum.

Braddock District Supervisor James Walkinshaw, who introduced the board matter on Tuesday, said the draft guidance that county staff has seen and provided input on through the Northern Virginia Regional Commission will clear up many of those questions.

He hopes the guidelines will be finalized soon so county staff can incorporate them into the ordinance that they have now been directed to draft and present to the board in September.

Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity, the lone Republican on the board, opposed the board matter, taking issue with the timing of the proposal.

“I can’t believe we’re doing this in the middle of a pandemic, or a recovery from a pandemic,” he said. “This is going to be another tax burden on our citizens.”

He argued that the county should instead focus its energy on addressing litter and creating a program to properly recycle plastic bags, similar to the Purple Can Club that the county instituted for glass recycling in 2019.

“I think we need to look at doing the right thing on plastic bags, which is let’s start collecting them and recycling them, not taxing our residents for them,” Herrity said.

Supervisor Rodney Lusk, who represents Lee District, noted that the board moved in September to create a task force focused on preventing and reducing litter. Hill confirmed that county staff is on schedule to deliver a report on that to the board’s environmental committee this fall.

In addition, Walkinshaw says imposing a tax on plastic bags would support efforts to address littering, since the collected tax revenue can be used for environmental clean-up and pollution and litter mitigation, among other goals.

“It’s not really about charging people,” Walkinshaw said. “It’s reminding people to change their behavior and helping them along to do it.”

The question of whether moving away from plastic bags helps the environment is more complicated than it appears.

Research suggests single-use plastic bags are actually less harmful from an emissions standpoint than the alternatives, because paper and reusable cotton bags require more energy to manufacture, though the latter can make up for it if used frequently.

However, plastic poses a threat to wildlife since it often ends up in waterways and degrades extremely slowly, releasing chemicals into the water and air and breaking down into microplastics that get ingested by animals and humans.

McKay says getting an ordinance drafted now will enable the county to have a more thorough discussion of the potential benefits and drawbacks of a tax and start the public engagement process.

As part of the approved board matter, the county’s public affairs office and office of environmental and energy coordination have been directed to develop a public outreach campaign to gather input from residents and businesses on the proposed ordinance.

“The state has given local governments an authority to do something we supported,” McKay said. “How we do it is the beauty of going through our process and hearing from our public about…if we do it, how we should do it, and under what circumstances we should do it.”

Photo via Daniel Romero/Unsplash

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