Council to vote on plastic bag tax on Saturday

Council to vote on plastic bag tax on Saturday
File photo

By Cody Mello-Klein |

During City Council’s Tuesday night legislative meeting, council unanimously voted to schedule final consideration of a proposed plastic bag tax for the Saturday public hearing.

The proposed ordinance, which would impose a 5-cent tax on plastic bags provided to customers by grocery stores, convenience stores and drug stores, has been a topic of conversation among residents and city leaders since 2008. In 2017, as the city was developing its Environmental Action Plan and 20-year WasteSmart plan, residents voiced concerns about how single-use plastic bags negatively impact the environment. Subsequently, the city included the tax as part of its 2019 and 2020 legislative packages.

“Plastic bags are a source of litter and pollutants in the city streets, our streams, our waterways and can take a very long time to decompose,” Helen Lee, environmental program manager in the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services, said. “Plastic bags are often mistaken for food by wildlife and can break into microplastics, then can enter into the food chain. Plastic bags are also a top contaminant in the recycling chain the city often pays for, as they tangle the equipment at the recycling facilities.”

Since Virginia is a Dillon Rule state, the lack of a state law allowing localities to adopt such a tax long prevented the city from placing a local tax on plastic bags in order to reduce waste. However, with the passage of a new state law in 2020, localities across the state are now able to implement taxes on single-use plastic bags. Localities that wish to adopt their own plastic bag tax ordinance must submit the ordinance to the state three months prior to the tax taking effect.

The city’s proposed plastic bag tax largely mirrors the model laid out by the state and, if approved by council on Saturday, would take effect on Jan. 1, 2022. The 5-cent tax would be added to each disposable plastic bag a customer uses at a given retailer in the city. As Lee noted in her presentation to council, the ordinance does not ban plastic bags outright or cover paper bags as a taxable item.

Certain kinds of plastic bags are exempt from the tax. These would include durable, reusable plastic bags; plastic bags that are used to wrap, contain or package meat, fish, produce, ice cream or perishable food items or prevent damage or contamination to these items; plastic bags used for dry cleaning or prescription drugs and multiple plastic bags sold in bulk for garbage, pet waste or leaf removal.

As part of the proposed tax, retailers would be compensated. Between when the tax would become effective and Jan. 1, 2023, retailers would retain 2 cents of every 5 cents collected for each plastic bag. After Jan. 1, 2023, retailers would only retain 1 cent of every 5 cents collected through the tax.

“To compensate retailers for the cost of collecting, accounting for and remitting the tax the state law does permit retailers to keep a portion of the tax collected,” Lee said.

According to Lee, the city estimates an annual revenue of $50,000 through the tax, although it largely depends on consumer behavior.

As for what the city could use that money for, the state law is highly specific. The city would be able to spend the revenue gained through the plastic bag tax on: environmental cleanup; environmental educational programs to reduce environmental waste; mitigation of pollution and litter and ways of providing reusable bags to beneficiaries of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Women, Infants and Children Program.

Ahead of its presentation to council on Tuesday, the city conducted public outreach efforts to hear from the community and various stakeholders. Although Lee characterized the input as a “generally enthusiastic response,” she noted that retailers did express concern that residents would not want to pay the tax. The retailers, which Lee said already comply with hundreds of plastic bag taxes across the country, also requested additional outreach and education efforts for residents, including point of sale graphics and signs.

Several other jurisdictions are also considering similar tax ordinances. Fairfax County approved its own plastic bag tax on Tuesday, and Arlington County is considering one on Saturday. Both ordinances also have an effective date of Jan. 1, 2022.

Councilor Mo Seifeldein asked about the city’s strategy to address issues of equity and pointed to Washington, D.C.’s reusable bag distribution events in low-income areas.

“The equity consideration is incredibly important to us. It’s part of the pillars of our WasteSmart plan, which is why we’re going to be coupling this proposal with increased targeted outreach to low-income household communities,” Lee responded.

According to Lee, the city would host distribution events for SNAP and WIC beneficiaries where they can obtain reusable bags.

Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker asked city staff about a “take a bag, leave a bag” concept that had been included as part of the WasteSmart plan. Lee said that several residents had proposed a similar canvas bag drive during public outreach and that the city is looking into the idea.

“I really love that idea and that comment because I think it really reflects who our community is, one who strives to help others while focusing on those important first steps or resource recovery: reduce and reuse,” Lee said.

Bennett-Parker proposed a motion, which was seconded by Seifeldein, to approve first reading of the ordinance and schedule it for public hearing and a final vote on Saturday. The motion was approved 7-0.

“We know it’s been asked by our residents and by council for measures to reduce the impact of plastic bags for a number of years, and we hope that this action by you will help lessen the environmental impact of plastic bags in our region,” Lee said.