Bag It?—Not Any More

Arlington to consider a new five-cent tax for each plastic bag.

Arlington is set to join other northern Virginia jurisdictions in considering a five-cent plastic bag tax that would apply to grocery stores, drug

stores, convenience stores and large retailers that contain grocery stores.

The tax would not apply to bags used by cleaners or bags for carryout orders from restaurants.

Arlington’s curbside pickup does not accept plastic bags or films because they can damage sorting equipment.

The Arlington County Board is scheduled to take up the five-cent tax on disposable plastic shopping bags on Saturday, Sept. 18 with time for public comments. Retailers who collect the tax can keep 2 cents of the five-cent tax for the first two years and 1 cent per bag in subsequent years.

The Virginia Assembly in March 2020 passed SB11 that gave counties and cities the option to impose a five-cent tax, and it was signed into law on April 10, 2020. The tax is designated to be used for environmental purposes.

EcoAction Arlington submitted a petition stating, “Plastic bags are a scourge to our environment. They litter our streets and open spaces, threaten water quality and wildlife, and contaminate our soils, landfills, and groundwater with harmful chemicals.The plastic bag tax will encourage residents to shift to more reusable, sustainable bags and provide funds to support efforts such as environmental cleanups, public education on reducing waste and pollution, and distribution of reusable bags to those who cannot afford them.”

This effort is in keeping with Arlington’s goals to be a national leader in environmental efforts. Arlington’s new residential curbside food scraps collection program began Sept. 6. The county has set a goal to be carbon neutral by 2050.

State Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-30) has been able to pass a bill giving localities authority to impose a five-cent tax on each and every plastic bag that's used in grocery stores and convenience stores.

"This isn't just about money from consumers," said Ebbin, who first introduced the bill more than a decade ago when he was a member of the House of Delegates. "It's more importantly about changing consumer behavior and reducing pollution, and I think we're on the road to the start of that."

According to the Earth Policy Institute, Americans use on average nearly one plastic bag each day. Although they're theoretically recyclable, most end up in landfills or littering rivers and beaches.

But grocery stores across Virginia are urging Arlington and other local governments to hit the pause button.

"We would encourage any locality that is considering this tax to at least consider an implementation date of after the end of the COVID-19

pandemic," said Parker Slaybaugh, executive director of the Virginia Food Industry Association. "Our employees and our stores are doing everything possible right now to keep employees safe, to keep customers safe and to keep shelves stocked, and adding a new administrative burden such as a new tax could certainly hamper those efforts."

IF APPROVED, the Virginia Tax Commissioner will collect the tax, enforce the rules and distribute the money to local governments across Virginia.

"It's not a huge burden," said Ebbin. "And it's a small price to pay for not being complicit in pollution."

The Roanoke City Council was the first local government to take action under Ebbin's new law, approving a tax back in May. That prompted the Virginia Department of Taxation to publish guidelines because "grocery store" wasn't defined in state law. Those guidelines were published earlier this month, and now Fairfax County and City of Alexandria are considering similar measures.

MOMENTUM FOR TAXING plastic bags has been building for decades. Denmark created the first plastic bag tax back in 1993. Since that time, countries across the world and cities across America have followed suit. More than 150 cities across the country currently have some kind of tax on plastic bags.

When Democrats seized control of the General Assembly after the 2019 election, the effort to give local governments authority to tax plastic bags was at the top of the list. According to the law, money raised by the tax can be used for specific purposes: environmental cleanup, mitigating pollution, education programs and providing reusable bags to recipients of food stamps. The tax would go into effect Jan. 1, 2022.

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