The Fredericksburg City Council directed city staff to prepare a draft ordinance for a five-cent single-use plastic bag tax. In its Tuesday meeting, most of the city council expressed support for the proposal, introduced by Council Member Kerry Devine.
“The reality is I hope this is a tax we never collect,” Devine told the Council.
“The goal of this tax is to encourage reusable bags at those particular stores, again: grocery, convenience, and pharmacies. So, it is a completely avoidable tax if you have your own bags or if you’re getting one or two items if you don’t require a bag for those items. And again, living in proximity to one of the states’ most beautiful rivers should be an added impetus for us to take action on this.”
The tax was legalized by the 2020 General Assembly. HB 534, introduced by Delegate Betsy Carr (D-Richmond), and SB 11, introduced by Senator Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria), authorize localities to enact five-cent taxes on disposable plastic bags and require the localities to use revenue from the tax for environmental cleanup and to provide re-usable bags. The tax revenue can only be used for environment cleanup, education to reduce environmental waste, and to provide reusable bags to customers on low-income food benefits programs. Retailers are also allowed to keep a small percentage of the tax to offset their own costs related to implementing the tax.
The tax does have exemptions, including for perishable items and dry-cleaning bags. It doesn’t include commercially sold bulk plastic bags like trash bags and dog poop bags.
Devine said, “We did not bring it forward last year because of the pandemic quite frankly. As restaurants were doing a lot of takeout and grocery stores were doing a lot of home delivery, there was a real uptick in the use of plastic bags and I didn’t feel like it was the right time to sort of squash those businesses and restaurants that were really trying to be creative and make it during the pandemic. But I do think it is time.”
City Attorney Kathleen Dooley said that sometime in June the Virginia Department of Taxation is expected to issue definitions of key terms in the legislation authorizing the bag tax. She said a draft ordinance would probably be ready for the Council in July. Fredericksburg isn’t the only locality waiting for those definitions.
The member governments of the Northern Virginia Regional Commission are also considering enacting a tax. In April, Fairfax County Office of Environmental and Energy Coordination Deputy Director Susan Hafeli said the localities are waiting for guidelines from Governor Northam’s office.
Hafeli told The Virginia Star, “The bags that would be subject to that tax are arguably defined in the statute. So, it might depend on the thickness of the bag, and it might depend on things like, I don’t know, are Targets one of the covered entities? Is Target a grocery store, convenience store or a drug store?”
The Roanoke City Council passed a bag tax in May. Dooley told the Fredericksburg City Council that Roanoke wrote their own definitions.
Council Member Timothy Duffy said, “I think that we’ve been sold a bill of goods with the idea that we could get these plastic items that have these cute little triangles on them that they can be recycled. And the fact is that they just aren’t being recycled. And I think that what measures like this do is it’s an effort to try to incentivize reducing the amount of plastic that we’re using. It’s pretty clear that we’re not going to recycle our way out of this problem.”
Council members discussed ways to boost implementation and reduce potential hardships on stores and citizens. Council Member Jason Graham asked, “I wonder if there might be a way for us, at the beginning of the program to find a way to have some bags on hand at various outlets throughout the community just to help kick-start those habits.”
Devine said the community needed to develop new habits. “When I taught eighth grade in city schools, that was one of the homework assignments I gave my eighth graders. They had to help unpack the groceries and then put the bags back in the car or back on the doorknob where they were easily accessible. It’s new habits for people. ”
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