Fairfax County approves plastic bag tax, a first for Northern Virginia

Plastic bag on ground (via Ivan Radic/Flickr)

Fairfax County will require certain businesses, but not all, to pay taxes on disposable plastic bags in a move to encourage customers to use reusable bags.

The Board of Supervisors passed the measure yesterday (Tuesday) after a new state law gave counties and cities the authority to begin imposing a 5-cent tax starting in 2021. The tax will take effect on Jan. 1, 2022 for Fairfax County.

In a statement released after the vote, Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay acknowledged the challenges of introducing a new tax while the county continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, but he says the impact of plastic bags on the environment “is too great” to not act.

“There are simple steps residents can take to avoid the over-use of disposable plastic bags,” he said. “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.”

Fairfax County is the first locality in Northern Virginia to adopt a plastic bag tax, according to Braddock District Supervisor James Walkinshaw’s office. Walkinshaw initiated a board motion to pursue the issue in July as part of a joint effort with McKay and Mount Vernon District Supervisor Dan Storck.

Consistent with the state law, the tax applies to grocery stores, convenience stores and drug stores, but there are exemptions for reusable plastic bags, bags used for perishable food to prevent damage or contamination, bags that carry prescription drugs or dry cleaning, and bags sold in bulk, such as garbage bags.

“Plastic bags frequently end up in a landfill, where it can take more than 500 years for the bag to disintegrate. Many plastic bags end up in our streams,” Fairfax County Office of Environmental and Energy Coordination Deputy Director Susan Hafeli said. “While the impact on human health is still being addressed, there is evidence that humans ingest and inhale thousands of microplastics per year, which result in the breakdown of disposable plastic bags and other plastic products.”

The Office of Environmental and Energy Coordination says the tax is intended to influence consumer behavior by discouraging consumers from using single-use disposable plastic bags.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. uses over 380 billion plastic bags and wraps yearly, requiring 12 million barrels of oil to create. Turtles, one of several aquatic creatures that suffer from the trash, die of starvation after eating them.

The Board of Supervisors approved the measure 9-1 with Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity — the lone Republican member — opposing it. He said food banks reported relying on the bags to distribute food and argued that it’s the wrong time to add any tax.

Before the vote, the board held a public hearing where dozens of community members spoke both for and against the proposed tax.

Proponents included sixth-grade student Emily Ackerman, who said by video that she wants her generation grow up in a country that’s clean and not full of trash.

“It upsets me most when I see [plastic bags] floating in the water,” she said.

Jennifer Cole, executive director of the nonprofit Clean Fairfax Council, suggested the choice customers face is not between plastic and paper, but sustainable and unsustainable, noting that while stores appear to give disposable bags away for free, it’s surely baked into the costs that customers absorb.

John Cartmill spoke while carrying a reusable bag filled with plastic bags that he said he’s collected over the past week along Sugarland Run Trail.

Opponents included former EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler, who argued that making this a local issue is misguided compared to the scale of the environmental challenges that the world is facing with climate change.

Pointing to China as the world’s biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, he said a cotton tote bag would have to be used for 54 years to offset the environmental damage done by creating it. He suggested increasing educational programs and adding locations to recycle bags would be a better approach.

Walkinshaw noted after the hearing that former EPA administrators from both major political parties have criticized Wheeler’s tenure, which was under the Trump administration.

“If Andrew Wheeler says that we should turn right on an environmental issue, we should turn left,” the Braddock District supervisor said. “And that will help guide us, I think, tonight.”

Fairfax County advises people to take plastic grocery bags to larger grocery stores, where there are usually drop-off bins at or near the doors, for recycling. The county doesn’t accept plastic bags in its curbside recycling program, because they tangle and damage sorting equipment and can contaminate other kinds of recyclable plastic.

Studies have shown that plastic bag taxes can lead customers to sharply drop their plastic bag use.

Other individuals who argued against the plastic bag tax cited its potential impact on low-income county residents and sanitary concerns.

Maureen Brody said she goes out every week to clean roadways and rarely finds plastic bags but does find another form of trash: face masks.

Like with sales taxes, Virginia will collect the plastic bag tax and then send money back to local municipalities. McKay said he hoped no money would come from it.

“Not one single person in this county has to pay this fee,” McKay said after the public hearing, noting that people can avoid paying the tax by using alternatives.

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.

According to a staff report in the board agenda, revenue from the plastic bag tax can be used for environmental clean-up initiatives, including educational programs and pollution and litter mitigation, and to provide reusable bags to recipients of federal food assistance benefits.

Passed by the General Assembly in March 2020, Virginia’s plastic bag tax law notes that, if a city or county chooses to implement the tax, businesses could technically still give plastic bags to customers for free. However, those companies would still have to pay the tax for each bag.

In a move to encourage business to collect the money, those affected can keep 2 cents per bag until Jan. 1, 2023. After that, the dealer discount will drop to 1 cent per bag.

Photo via Ivan Radic/Flickr

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