The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Northern Virginia officials wanted to tax plastic bags for years. And now they will.

A cashier at a supermarket in Falls Church bags groceries in April. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)
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When Tim Lovain began pushing to limit Northern Virginia’s use of plastic bags in the 2000s, most local lawmakers hesitated to support him. “It felt a little lonely,” the former Alexandria City Council member said.

“To some extent, it surprised people,” he said. Although several countries in Asia and Europe had begun phasing out single-use plastic bags, and the District would start taxing them just a few years later, Lovain remembered elected officials had largely wrung their hands on the matter.

They worried about what fewer bags meant for retailers and consumers, Lovain said, and how they may win over the Virginia General Assembly, which must grant counties and cities direct 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 swiftly 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 to help our local governments to clean up the problem.” The shift signals 15 years on rapid change on several fronts. Environmental issues and climate change have become a far more pressing concern for local governments. In Northern Virginia, where the electorate has only grown bluer, voters and advocates are demanding that their elected officials take more action.

It is also a signal of shifting tides in Virginia as a whole. The Democratic majority in Richmond means local lawmakers from the most reliably blue suburbs are no longer as burdened by the Dillon Rule, a policy that limits legislative authorities to those explicitly granted by the state. With control of the legislature as well as the executive mansion since 2020, Democrats have heralded the season of liberal policy at the local level.

This year, Arlington and Alexandria approved collective bargaining for local government employees and created civilian police review boards to conduct probes into law enforcement behavior. Like other areas n Virginia, they have shed Confederate memorials and renamed roads.

Now they are taking steps on climate issues. “We are concerned about the environment, and localities being able to protect the environment. We’re making progress,” noted State Sen. Adam Ebbin (D), who sponsored the 2020 bill in Richmond that allowed counties and cities to move forward with the tax. “This is a step forward in reducing pollution.”

The local measures, effective Jan. 1, are similar in all three jurisdictions and relatively narrow. The five-cent surcharge applies to supermarkets, pharmacies and convenience stores. But in those venues, tax-free plastic bags can still be used to carry out meat and other items.

By comparison, Montgomery County, Md., applies its five-cent tax to all retail businesses, including restaurants and hardware stores. The city of Baltimore has decided to prohibit plastic bags altogether.

Fairfax Supervisor Pat Herrity (R-Springfield), the sole lawmaker to vote against the measure, said Tuesday that it amounted to a “regressive tax burden” which would most impact low-income residents still struggling with the dire 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 and more about pushing residents to consider their behavior as the first step.

“You can still pay five cents and use a bag,” he said. “What we want to do is for people to think and hopefully over time to develop alternatives and use either fewer bags or just stop using the single-use plastic bags.”

The tax is not expected to generate much local revenue. In Alexandria it will amount to about $50,000 annually. The impacted retailers will be allowed to keep two cents of every nickel collected for the first year. In 2023, it will drop down to one cent to continue the incentive.

Elected officials in all three Northern Virginia jurisdictions said that some or all of the revenue generated by the plastic bag 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 long delay in implementing the tax in the region, 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 had decreased from 82 percent to 40 percent.

Helen Lee, an environmental program manager with the city of Alexandria, said that plastic bags are often found as litter in streams and in waterways, where they can degrade over time, and then enter the food chain. In rural areas of Virginia, flyaway bags can contaminate cotton bales.

Lee, who chairs the Northern Virginia Regional Commission’s waste board, noted that volunteers in in the District with the nonprofit group Ferguson Foundation fished out nearly three-fourths the bags during their cleanups in the Potomac River after the local tax went into effect in 2010.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday enacted its climate action plan, which was a demand from local environmental activists who wanted a major public document to outline goals like electrifying transit, connecting bicycle lanes, and improving efficiency in buildings.

Scott Peterson, one of the founders of Faith Alliance for Climate Solutions, noted both the plastic bag tax and the climate action plan underscore some of the significant 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 could not even say the phrase climate change. However, today things are different.”

The Fairfax County action plan cites some lofty objectives even Peterson conceded may be difficult to meet, particularly, reducing greenhouse gas emissions all across Fairfax County by 2030. But that means there is only more work to do. Peterson concluded, “Did we get everything we wanted? No. But did we get something? Yes. Are we done? No way.”