Smile! It's a great day to not pollute the world's oceans (and trees) with plastic.
Three of the largest jurisdictions in Northern Virginia have banded together to adopt a 5-cent plastic bag tax, aimed at cutting down on pollution in local waterways.
Arlington and Alexandria lawmakers voted unanimously on Saturday to adopt the bag tax, while Fairfax voted last Tuesday, 9 to 1 in favor.
"It's really an emotional moment for me," said Arlington County Board Member Takis Karantoni. He recounted that one of his first acts of civic engagement after moving to Arlington was a cleanup at Four Mile Run. "We got what we expected — bags full of plastic. A lot of it."
Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson jokingly lamented that Arlington and Fairfax voted on the policy first. "Unfortunately, we are the third in the region to adopt it, by a matter of hours," Wilson said during the city council meeting on Saturday. "Next time we should call a special meeting so we can get it done first."
Wilson said that local leaders had been discussing a bag tax for years. However, jurisdictions in Virginia didn't have the authority to levy bag taxes. That changed last year, when the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation allowing counties and cities to tax disposable plastic bags. However, paper bags were not included in the legislation, though many people argue paper bags should also be discouraged, as they have their own environmental impacts.
In Arlington, a handful of people spoke against the bag fee at the county board meeting Saturday, including Scott Pedowitz, with the Arlington Chamber of Commerce. "We fully support individuals bringing their own reusable bags to carry groceries," said Pedowitz. But he said the policy should not be adopted during the pandemic, when many people were hesitant to use reusable bags. Also, he said the policy would have a disproportionate impact on some businesses. "This will be a particular burden on our smaller neighborhood-serving retailers, who do not have compliance departments and who may find the particulars of this ordinance confusing."
A number of residents in Arlington and Alexandria spoke in favor of the tax, and urged lawmakers to do even more to combat pollution and climate change.
"Meeting the challenge of climate change will involve other decisions that are hard, decisions that require real courage," said Al Clark, in Alexandria. "This one, I hope, is easy. Please vote yes."
Bag fees have caught on around the country on in recent years, and have demonstrated success in changing behavior and cutting pollution. D.C., which adopted one of the first such fees in the nation in 2009, saw 72% fewer plastic bags collected at trash cleanups after the fee went into effect, and 80% of residents surveyed reported using fewer plastic bags. In Maryland, Montgomery County has a 5-cent fee in place, and state lawmakers have recently been pushing for a statewide disposable bag ban.
Plastic bags can be particularly hazardous to wildlife. Because they're so lightweight, the bags are easily blown into waterways or swept down storm drains. Then, they can be ingested by animals — sea turtles are prone to mistaking them for jellyfish — and they can also break down into tiny bits, known as microplastics. High levels of microplastics have been documented in D.C. rivers and throughout the world.
Nationwide, just 8% of all plastics were recycled in 2018, the most recent year reported by the EPA. Plastic bags, which are not accepted in most curbside recycling bins, are recycled at an even lower rate.
The new tax goes into effect on Jan 1, 2022, and applies to disposable plastic shopping bags at convenience stores, grocery stores, and drug stores. The tax revenue will go to environmental cleanup efforts, and to buy reusable bags for low-income residents.