They worried about what fewer bags would mean for retailers and consumers, he said, and how they might win over the Virginia General Assembly, which must grant counties and cities explicit permission to act.
Yet more than a dozen years later, Lovain’s vision for Northern Virginia is turning into reality, without much pushback: The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors approved a five-cent plastic bag charge on Tuesday, and both Arlington and Alexandria followed suit on Saturday.
“It’s very gratifying,” Lovain said. “For something that’s taken this long, this is a way to encourage the use of reusable bags and help our local governments to clean up the problem.”
The shift is emblematic of 15 years on rapid change on several fronts. Environmental issues and climate change have become a more pressing concern for local governments. In Northern Virginia, where the electorate has only gotten bluer, voters and advocates are increasingly demanding that their elected officials take action.
But it is also a sign of shifting tides in Virginia as a whole. The new Democratic majority in Richmond means that local lawmakers in the state’s most reliably blue suburbs are no longer as burdened by the Dillon Rule, a policy that limits their legislative authorities to those explicitly granted by the state.
With control of the General Assembly as well as the executive mansion since 2020, Democrats have heralded a season of liberal policymaking at the local level.
Earlier this year, Arlington and Alexandria both approved collective bargaining for local government employees and created civilian police review boards to conduct probes into law enforcement behavior. Like other localities in Virginia, they have shed Confederate memorials and renamed streets that honored Lost Cause leaders.
And now, they’re taking steps on climate issues as well.
“We are concerned about the environment, and localities being able to protect the environment, and we’re making progress,” said State Sen. Adam Ebbin (D), who sponsored the 2020 bill in Richmond that allowed counties and cities to move forward with the tax. “Not everything happens overnight, and this is a step forward in reducing pollution.”
The local measures, which go into effect on Jan. 1, are nearly identical in all three jurisdictions and relatively narrow. The five-cent surcharge applies only to supermarkets, pharmacies and convenience stores. Even in those venues, tax-free plastic bags can still be used to carry out meat, fish, poultry or ice cream.
By comparison, Montgomery County, Md., applies its five-cent tax to all retail businesses, including restaurants and hardware stores. The city of Baltimore has banned plastic bags altogether, and the D.C. rule also extends to paper bags.
Fairfax Supervisor Pat Herrity (R-Springfield), the sole lawmaker to vote against that county’s measure, said at the meeting Tuesday that the measure amounted to a “regressive tax burden” that would most directly impact low-income residents still struggling with the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
But Kambiz Agazi, director of the Fairfax County Office of Energy and Environmental Coordination, said that the goal of the tax is less about raising revenue or eliminating single-use bags entirely. Instead, it’s about pushing residents to consider their behavior as a first step.
“You can still pay five cents and use a bag,” he said. “What we’d like to do is for people to think and hopefully over time develop alternatives and use either fewer bags or just stop using the single-use plastic bags.”
Agazi noted that many large grocers, including Aldi, Costco, Wegman’s and Trader Joe’s have already eliminated plastic bags from their checkout aisles, with few complaints from customers.
The tax is not expected to generate much local revenue — in Alexandria, it will amount to about $50,000 annually — and impacted retailers will be allowed to keep two cents of every nickel collected for the first year. In 2023, that will drop down to one cent.
Elected officials in all three jurisdictions said that some or all of the revenue generated by the tax would go to providing reusable bags for low-income residents, including those who benefit from safety nets like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
One silver lining to the region’s long delay in implementing the tax, they said, is that research has found the measure works elsewhere in the region. In a 2018 study, a New York University economist found that at eight stores in Montgomery County, the portion of customers seen using disposable bags dropped from 82 percent to 40 percent.
Helen Lee, an environmental program manager with the city of Alexandria, said that plastic bags are commonly found as litter in streams and waterways, where they can degrade over time and then enter the food chain. In more rural parts of Virginia, flyaway bags can end up contaminating cotton bales.
Lee, who chairs the Northern Virginia Regional Commission’s waste board, noted that volunteers in D.C. with the nonprofit Ferguson Foundation fished out nearly three-fourths the bags during their cleanups in the Potomac River after the D.C. tax went into effect in 2010.
The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday also passed a climate action plan, a demand from local environmental activists who wanted a document to outline goals like electrifying transit, connecting bicycle lanes, and improving building efficiency.
Scott Peterson, one of the founders of Faith Alliance for Climate Solutions, said both the plastic bag tax and the climate action plan underscore the large environmental steps that Fairfax County and Virginia as a whole have undertaken in the past five years or so.
Just a few years ago, he said, “The former chair of the Board of Supervisors couldn’t even say the phrase ‘climate change.’ Now things are different.”
The county’s action plan sets some lofty objectives that even Peterson conceded may be difficult to meet, namely, reducing greenhouse gas emissions across the county by 2030. But that means there’s only more work to do.
He added, “Did we get everything we wanted? No. Did we get something? Yes. Are we done? No way.”