(The Center Square) – Shoppers in some northern Virginia localities will see a new charge on their receipts if they use plastic bags to carry their items once a new tax goes into effect in January.
In the past week, Arlington County, Fairfax County and the city of Alexandria adopted ordinances to impose a 5-cent tax on each plastic bag used in purchases, which will be paid by the shopper. The tax resembles the ones in nearby Washington, D.C. and Montgomery County in Maryland.
Local officials cited environmental concerns as the reason for the tax, but some business groups fought in opposition to it.
“A decrease in plastic carryout bags will lessen our environmental impact and improve quality of life for our Eco-City by reducing the plastic bags littering our roads and local waterways,” Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson said in a statement. “This action, coupled with continuing outreach and education that empowers our residents as active partners in these efforts, is one of the many important steps Alexandria and our neighboring jurisdictions are taking toward achieving environmental sustainability.”
Jessica Baxter, a spokesperson for Arlington County, told The Center Square the potential impact on businesses and low-income shoppers were a major factor in the decision making process. She noted that businesses will receive 2 cents of every 5 cents collected for the first year of the tax and 1 cent of every 5 cents collected in all subsequent years. She said the county intends to distribute reusable bags to at-risk communities over the next few months and conduct an education campaign with stakeholders.
Alexandria will use revenue from the plastic bag tax to increase outreach to low-income communities, according to Helen Lee, the environmental program manager at the city’s Department of Transportation & Environmental Services. She told The Center Square that funds will be used to distribute reusable bags to SNAP and WIC communities so they can avoid the tax.
The Center Square reached out to Fairfax County, but did not receive a comment by the time of publication.
Although those provisions will help somewhat, the policy will still have a negative impact on low-income shoppers and businesses affected by the rules, according to Kate Baker, the director of government affairs for the Virginia Retail Federation.
Regional taxes that only affect certain localities, Baker told The Center Square, will force businesses with multiple locations to manage different tax codes in different parts of the commonwealth. Some shoppers who live near city or county borders, she said, could factor the plastic bag tax into their decision on where to shop, which could negatively impact certain businesses.
Baker said the effect this will have on the economy is yet to be determined, but it could have a major impact on some businesses.
The ordinance also received criticism from Stephen Haner, a senior fellow for state and local tax policy at the free-market Thomas Jefferson Institute.
“Adding 20 or 30 cents to a grocery or convenience store bill clearly matters more to a low income family, which is also less likely to spend a few bucks to have its own reusable bags for shopping,” Haner told The Center Square. “Advocates claim it means fewer of the bags ending up as litter on the streets or in streams, but one suspects the paper cups, plastic bottles and other trash will still be there.”
The new tax was made possible by legislation passed by the General Assembly last year, which allows localities to impose five-cent tax increases and gives them more leeway to impose other taxes. Democratic leaders, who have a majority in both chambers, supported increasing local tax authority, but it was opposed by Republican leaders.
In each locality, the tax will apply to single-use plastic bags common and grocery stores, convenience stores and drug stores. It will not apply to plastic bags intended to be reused or for plastic used to wrap items, such as meat, fish or unwrapped bulk food items. Bags used for dry cleaning and prescription drugs will also be exempt, as will bags sold in packages for garbage, pet waste or leaf removal.