The Arlington County Board is set to vote on adopting a 5-cent tax on disposable plastic shopping bags at its meeting next week.
Last March, the Virginia General Assembly gave municipalities the option to levy the tax with revenues earmarked for local environmental education and cleanup. The County Board discussed enacting a tax last year, but put it off over concerns about how this would financially impact low-income residents during the pandemic.
Now, the county is looking to tax plastic bags issued at grocery, convenience and drug store checkouts to help “reduce pollution and protect natural landscapes.” Similar efforts are underway in Alexandria and Fairfax County, meaning much of Northern Virginia could see a tax in effect by January 2022, the county said in a press release.
“The tax gives shoppers an incentive to bring their own reusable totes rather than accept single-use disposable plastic that can wind up polluting local waterways or simply tossed in with trash destined for incinerators and landfills,” it said.
Currently, Arlington’s residential recycling program does not accept plastic bags because they can damage sorting equipment, the county said. Many large supermarkets do offer bag bag drop-off bins, and some retailers in Arlington have given shoppers a checkout discount for using reusable bags.
Exempt from the tax will be: paper bags; task-specific bags, like those used for holding meat and seafood, vegetables and protecting dry cleaning; and bags that are products for purchase, like trash and pet waste bags.
Retailers who collect the tax can keep two cents per bag for the next two calendar years, and then one cent per bag in subsequent years. Collection is overseen by the state Department of Taxation, which then distributes revenues for localities to administer.
The county will develop strategies to address the equity impacts of this proposed change, Department of Environmental Services spokesman Peter Golkin tells ARLnow.
“We are pleased that the legislation allows proceeds of the tax to fund the purchase of reusable bags for WIC and SNAP program beneficiaries and we anticipate expanding that to others in our community,” he said.
This fall, the county will embark on an education campaign to help residents understand the program and its environmental benefits.
When the County Board last discussed the plastic bag tax in October 2020, staff had drafted a timeline for implementing it by summer of 2021. But Board members cautioned moving too quickly and not considering the unintended consequences on those who are vulnerable and low-income — especially during the pandemic.
“The most vulnerable suffer the most from pollution and will suffer the most when we try to clean it up,” Board Chair Libby Garvey said at the time. “We’re going to try and do it right and be aware of the pitfalls, and there are a lot.”
The public will be able to comment on the proposed tax at next Saturday’s meeting, before the Board vote.
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