Grocers shared mixed reactions to Fairfax County’s 5-cent plastic bag tax

A Food Lion in Herndon (via Google Maps)

Fairfax County’s new plastic bag tax, set to take effect on Jan. 1, drew both support and opposition from the supermarket industry.

Food Lion and MOM’s Organic Market took opposite stances on the issue before the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors approved the change last Tuesday (Sept. 14), imposing a 5-cent tax on each disposable plastic bag provided at grocery stores, convenient stores, and drug stores.

“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 and implement uniform brand strategies for waste reduction and recycling,” the company said in a letter shared by Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity, the only board member who voted against the measure.

Headquartered in Salisbury, N.C., Food Lion has one store in Fairfax County, located in a shopping center in Herndon.

The company’s director of operations, Eric Sword, said in the emailed statement to the county that the business recycled 6,914 tons of plastic in 2020, among other recycling efforts, and it’s working to meet a parent company goal to make all plastic packaging fully reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025.

“Food Lion is supportive of broad-based efforts to reduce customer usage of both paper and plastic bags, and the brand continuously works to raise customer awareness of the value of using reusable bags,” the letter said.

However, Sword wrote that he believes the change will shift consumer behavior almost entirely to paper bags, even though the company seeks to encourage reusable bags for customers.

Meanwhile, a MOM’s representative noted during the Sept. 14 public hearing that their business voluntarily banned plastic bags over a decade ago and uses paper and compostable bags.

“We banned plastic bags 15 years ago because it was the right thing to do for the environment and the communities we call home,” Alexandra DySard, the company’s environment and partnership manager, said in video testimony.

The Rockville, Maryland-based supermarket, which has stores in Herndon and the Mosaic District in Merrifield, favors alternatives to a plastic bag that many people might only use for 12 minutes, DySard said.

“Plastic manufacturers are misleading consumers to believe that bags are being upcycled into benches and decks when the truth is the majority of plastic bags are being sent to landfills, incinerators, ending up in our waterways, or being shipped out of sight to third-world countries,” DySard said.

She also noted that D.C. saw a 72% reduction in plastic bags found in streams after its ban took effect in 2010.

FFXnow contacted other grocery chains in the area for comment, including Giant, Safeway, and Harris Teeter, but did not receive responses by press time.

The Board of Supervisors ultimately approved the new tax 9-1, as advocates likened it to a fee that people can avoid and expressed hope that the move will encourage consumers’ environmental stewardship.

“Plastic bag taxes are proven in jurisdictions across the nation,” said Braddock District Supervisor James Walkinshaw, who introduced the measure. “This measure will reduce plastic pollution and the modest funds collected will be reinvested into litter prevention and to providing reusable bags for low-income community members.”

Herrity dissented, saying in newsletters sent to constituents before and after the vote that now is not the time to add another tax.

“Instead of instituting a rigorous education campaign — one that encompasses how to recycle and dispose of multiple forms of trash — the Board is taxing residents into compliance,” Herrity said, suggesting the county needs to “create more ways for people to recycle and more materials to educate them on how they can” do so.

The county hasn’t allocated the future tax revenue to a specific purpose yet, but state law permits it to be used for pollution and litter mitigation, educational programs about reducing waste, and reusable bags for residents who receive federal food assistance benefits.

The tax doesn’t apply to:

  • multiple bags sold in packages, such as those for garbage, leaves or pet waste
  • plastic bags used solely for certain food products such as ice cream, meat, fish, poultry, produce, unwrapped bulk food items, or perishable food items
  • plastic bags with handles designed for multiple reuse
  • plastic bags for dry cleaning or prescription drugs

With the board’s vote last week, Fairfax County was the first Northern Virginia locality to institute a plastic bag tax, but neighboring Arlington County and the City of Alexandria quickly followed suit, adopting their own ordinances on Saturday (Sept. 18).

Photo via Google Maps

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