Fairfax County shoppers will pay a 5-cent tax on disposable plastic bags starting next year if they choose not to use another option, such as reusable bags, to carry their items.
The Board of Supervisors voted 9-1 Sept. 14 to enact the tax, which was enabled by state legislation passed last year. Proponents on the board said the tax is intended to incentivize behavioral change in consumers, not raise revenue.
Supervisor Dalia Palchik (D-Providence) said the average person receives about 365 plastic bags per year.
“I think we can safely say that 5 cents a day, if that is the cost, is well worth protecting our resources, protecting our community,” she said.
The tax will take effect Jan. 1, 2022, and be administered by the Virginia Department of Taxation, which will receive and process the revenues and distribute net proceeds back to the county.
Commercial outlets will be allowed to keep 2 cents per bag to cover administrative costs for the first year and then just 1 cent per bag beginning Jan. 1, 2023.
The tax will apply to bags given to customers for in-store, to-go, delivery and curbside-pickup purchases at grocery and convenience stores and pharmacies, but there are numerous exceptions. The tax does not apply to durable plastic bags that are at least 4 mm thick, have handles and are intended for multiple usages.
Also exempted are plastic bags used to prevent damage or contamination to ice cream, meat, fish, poultry, produce, unwrapped bulk-food items, perishable food items, dry cleaning and prescription drugs or multiple bags sold in containers that are intended to hold garbage, pet waste and leaves.
Plastic bags often end up in landfills, where they take more than 500 years to disintegrate, or in streams and riparian areas, where they can get caught in trees and brush and harm fishes and wildlife, said Susan Hafeli, deputy director of the county’s Office of Environmental and Energy Coordination.
Disposable plastic bags often become micro-plastic particles when they break down, and there is evidence that humans ingest and inhale such particles, she added.
Dozens of local residents spoke at the public hearing, and a majority favored the new tax.
“We know that the lobbyists for the plastic industry, heavily backed financially by the fossil-fuel industry, have been promulgating misinformation and, quite frankly, downright lies about the single-use plastic-bag tax and its implications,” said Helen Shore, co-chairman of the environmental group 350 Fairfax.
But there also was a fair amount of opposition to the proposal.
County officials instead should provide all residents with at least four reusable bags, which have an expected lifespan of 30 to 50 uses, and offer a program to replace and dispose of those bags when they wear out, said resident Carmen Chavez-Ghimenti.
Maureen Brody, who ticked off Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay (D) by giving her remarks maskless at the podium, called the tax governmental overreach that would provide no benefits for residents.
A litter collector in her community, Brody said she likes running across plastic bags because she can use them to collect the No. 1 thing cluttering the ground: masks.
Several opponents called the tax regressive and said it would hurt low-income families, seniors and others on fixed incomes. McKay disagreed, saying people could take steps to avoid the tax and he would be happy if the county did not collect a cent.
“I find the argument about vulnerable people to be quite offensive, and many of the people who use it have never expressed an interest in helping those people before,” he said.
Andrew Wheeler, a county resident who served as administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under President Trump, said more than half of plastics found in the ocean originated from five Asian countries, with China being the “greatest offender by far.”
Wheeler called the bag tax “misguided” and a “punishment, not a solution.”
Long after Wheeler had left the podium, Supervisor James Walkinshaw (D-Braddock) took the unusual steps of criticizing his testimony by name and disparaging his EPA service.
“Mr. Wheeler’s tenure at the EPA was a disaster from an environmental perspective,” he said.
Supervisor Patrick Herrity (R-Springfield), who cast the lone vote against the bag tax, objected to Walkinshaw’s remarks against Wheeler. Herrity added that the new tax would do little to solve the county’ litter problem and was ill-advised considering the pandemic, inflation and real-estate taxes that have risen 45 percent in the last decade.
“This is completely the wrong time for a new tax,” Herrity said.
Revenues from the tax will be used for environmental education or cleanup, litter and pollution mitigation, or the provision of reusable bags to people receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC).
Arlington and Alexandria leaders over the weekend adopted a bag tax for their own jurisdictions. Downstate, the Roanoke City Council has imposed one.
For more information on the Fairfax initiative, visit www.tax.virginia.gov/disposable-plastic-bag-tax.