Plastic bag on ground (via Ivan Radic/Flickr)

When the new year starts, plastic bags will come with a new price tag.

Fairfax County’s 5-cent tax on single-use plastic bags will take effect for the first time on Saturday (Jan. 1). The fee will also be introduced in Arlington County and the City of Alexandria.

The towns of Herndon and Vienna are included, but the City of Falls Church passed its own ordinance that will begin April 1.

Virginia’s new law, passed in 2020, allows localities to introduce the tax starting in 2022. Research has shown that introducing such a fee influences consumers, helping promote environmental friendly behavior.

Although stores must pay the tax, they can still give plastic bags away for free. However, a sampling of companies by FFXnow suggests customers at various chains can expect to pay at stores ranging from Giant to Harris Teeter.

Wegmans stopped providing disposable plastic bags to customers at its four Fairfax County stores in early December, offering 5-cent paper bags instead.

Big box chains that include products beyond just groceries are also affected, according to Fairfax County. Walmart didn’t initially respond to a message seeking comment for its plans.

Target said it will charge customers for the bags, but it has a longstanding policy that rewards shoppers for bringing their own bags.

“In an effort to promote the use of reusable bags and keep more plastic bags out of landfills, Target gives guests a five-cent discount for each reusable bag used at all of our stores,” spokesperson Shane Kitzman said in an email. “For example, if a guest uses five reusable bags, they will receive a $0.25 discount on their purchase.”

Besides grocery stores, convenience stores and drugstores are also subject to the tax.

The money will be used for environmental cleanup programs, pollution and litter mitigation programs, education programs on environmental waste reduction and providing reusable bags to recipients of food stamps and Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program benefits.

Customers will continue to be able to donate plastic bags for recycling at major chains such as Giant, Harris Teeter, and Target. Bins are available in the front of stores.

Fairfax County advises people not to place plastic bags into recycling bins because the items can jam and entangle sorting equipment and conveyor belts and contaminate other grades of plastic being recycled at its facility.

The plastic bags tax doesn’t apply to heavy duty plastic bags, bags used to wrap fish, meat, bulk food items and certain other foods as well as plastic bags used to carry dry cleaning, prescription drugs or garbage/leaf/pet waste packages.

Photo via Ivan Radic/Flickr

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Flooding, power outages, and other impacts from storms are among the top climate change-related concerns for Fairfax County residents, the recently released results of a county survey suggest.

606 community members participated in the survey that the Fairfax County Office of Environmental and Energy Coordination (OEEC) conducted between June 8 and July 2 as part of its Resilient Fairfax initiative, which will produce a plan for how the county can withstand and adapt to the threats introduced by a warming planet.

81% of respondents cited severe storms as a concern, followed by changing temperatures (79%) and flooding (60%), according to the survey results report published on Nov. 8.

55% of respondents said they’re concerned about drought, 40% about fire risks, and 19% listed other climate hazards, including air quality and pollution, health effects, and the impact on plants and animals.

While the survey drew responses from just a fraction of the 1.1 million people who live in Fairfax County, the results still offer insight into the community’s awareness of the risks posed by climate change — and how they are already affecting people’s lives, county staff say.

“It helps us gather information that’s not available through quantitative data that we have,” OEEC Senior Planner Allison Homer said. “People’s opinions or people’s concerns, that’s not something we have access to without asking.”

Flooding

24.6% of the Fairfax County residents who answered the survey said their neighborhood has flooded within the past five years, with 9.8% of residents saying it has affected their home.

Of the respondents who work in the county, 24.8% said they have experienced flooding at their place of employment. 67.1% of respondents said they have witnessed flooding in the county outside their home or work, such as on roads.

The survey identifies Hunter Mill Road, Richmond Highway, George Washington Memorial Parkway, Prosperity Avenue, Huntington Avenue, and Little River Turnpike among the areas most vulnerable to flooding, though Homer says the evenly distributed flood map in the report doesn’t fully align with the county’s data.

“I think it’s sort of biased towards the areas where people lived that are taking the survey,” she said. “Our most flood-prone roads in reality are mostly concentrated towards the eastern part of the county.” Read More

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Gas-powered leaf blower (via Cbaile19/Wikimedia Commons)

Fairfax County will phase out the use of gas-powered leaf blowers in county operations.

Gas-powered leaf blowers are too noisy, dirty, and do not adhere to the newly-adopted Community-wide Energy and Climate Action Plan, according to several county supervisors. Instead, officials are recommending the use of electric equipment, along with leaf and grasscycling.

Braddock District Supervisor James Walkinshaw presented a joint board matter directing county staff to develop a plan for ending gas-powered leaf blower purchases at last week’s Board of Supervisors meeting. The board approved the matter by a vote of 9-1 with Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity dissenting.

“The use of gas-powered leaf blowers presents a number of problems,” said Walkinshaw at the meeting. “Most prominently, their extreme and pentertraing noise levels and the highly toxic emissions from the out of date two stroke engines.”

Walkinshaw noted that the blowers operate at a noise level that could potentially cause hearing damage. He also mentioned that they are inefficient in terms of its output and emit 23 times the amount of carbon dioxide as a Ford pickup truck.

The board matter additionally calls for contractors that work for the county to begin transitioning away from this type of equipment, encouraged by incentives from the county.

“By taking an incentive-based approach to our procurement policies, we can jumpstart the transition from dirty and noisy gas-powered blowers,” wrote Walkinshaw in a statement. “This initiative sends a strong signal to landscaping contractors that now is the time to invest in cleaner equipment.”

However, specific incentives were not discussed and will be established “when staff reports back,” a spokesperson from Walkinshaw’s office wrote to FFXnow in an email.

As of yet, there’s no deadline established for the phase out.

During the meeting, Hunter Mill District Supervisor Walter Alcorn noted that the county currently owns 133 gas-powered leaf blowers.

However, that number doesn’t include ones used by contractors who work for the county, a spokesperson from Walkinshaw’s office confirmed.

Alcron said he still hoped that this idea of banning gas blowers would be also adopted by the Virginia General Assembly, but stated that the county’s adoption was “clearly a step in the right direction.”

McKay acknowledged converting to an entirely electric fleet of blowers could be very expensive for some contractors, but hopes that the county phasing out this type of equipment is “leading by example.”

A cost estimate for phasing out this equipment isn’t available yet, but it’s expected to be minimal, according to Walkinshaw’s office.

Photo via Cbaile19/Wikimedia Commons

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A Food Lion in Herndon (via Google Maps)

Fairfax County’s new plastic bag tax, set to take effect on Jan. 1, drew both support and opposition from the supermarket industry.

Food Lion and MOM’s Organic Market took opposite stances on the issue before the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors approved the change last Tuesday (Sept. 14), imposing a 5-cent tax on each disposable plastic bag provided at grocery stores, convenient stores, and drug stores.

“While Food Lion strongly supports responsible stewardship and waste reduction efforts, complying with a patchwork of varying local single-use bag restrictions in the Commonwealth negatively impacts Food Lion’s ability to serve our customers and implement uniform brand strategies for waste reduction and recycling,” the company said in a letter shared by Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity, the only board member who voted against the measure.

Headquartered in Salisbury, N.C., Food Lion has one store in Fairfax County, located in a shopping center in Herndon.

The company’s director of operations, Eric Sword, said in the emailed statement to the county that the business recycled 6,914 tons of plastic in 2020, among other recycling efforts, and it’s working to meet a parent company goal to make all plastic packaging fully reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025.

“Food Lion is supportive of broad-based efforts to reduce customer usage of both paper and plastic bags, and the brand continuously works to raise customer awareness of the value of using reusable bags,” the letter said.

However, Sword wrote that he believes the change will shift consumer behavior almost entirely to paper bags, even though the company seeks to encourage reusable bags for customers.

Meanwhile, a MOM’s representative noted during the Sept. 14 public hearing that their business voluntarily banned plastic bags over a decade ago and uses paper and compostable bags.

“We banned plastic bags 15 years ago because it was the right thing to do for the environment and the communities we call home,” Alexandra DySard, the company’s environment and partnership manager, said in video testimony.

The Rockville, Maryland-based supermarket, which has stores in Herndon and the Mosaic District in Merrifield, favors alternatives to a plastic bag that many people might only use for 12 minutes, DySard said.

“Plastic manufacturers are misleading consumers to believe that bags are being upcycled into benches and decks when the truth is the majority of plastic bags are being sent to landfills, incinerators, ending up in our waterways, or being shipped out of sight to third-world countries,” DySard said.

She also noted that D.C. saw a 72% reduction in plastic bags found in streams after its ban took effect in 2010.

FFXnow contacted other grocery chains in the area for comment, including Giant, Safeway, and Harris Teeter, but did not receive responses by press time.

The Board of Supervisors ultimately approved the new tax 9-1, as advocates likened it to a fee that people can avoid and expressed hope that the move will encourage consumers’ environmental stewardship.

“Plastic bag taxes are proven in jurisdictions across the nation,” said Braddock District Supervisor James Walkinshaw, who introduced the measure. “This measure will reduce plastic pollution and the modest funds collected will be reinvested into litter prevention and to providing reusable bags for low-income community members.”

Herrity dissented, saying in newsletters sent to constituents before and after the vote that now is not the time to add another tax.

“Instead of instituting a rigorous education campaign — one that encompasses how to recycle and dispose of multiple forms of trash — the Board is taxing residents into compliance,” Herrity said, suggesting the county needs to “create more ways for people to recycle and more materials to educate them on how they can” do so.

The county hasn’t allocated the future tax revenue to a specific purpose yet, but state law permits it to be used for pollution and litter mitigation, educational programs about reducing waste, and reusable bags for residents who receive federal food assistance benefits.

The tax doesn’t apply to:

  • multiple bags sold in packages, such as those for garbage, leaves or pet waste
  • plastic bags used solely for certain food products such as ice cream, meat, fish, poultry, produce, unwrapped bulk food items, or perishable food items
  • plastic bags with handles designed for multiple reuse
  • plastic bags for dry cleaning or prescription drugs

With the board’s vote last week, Fairfax County was the first Northern Virginia locality to institute a plastic bag tax, but neighboring Arlington County and the City of Alexandria quickly followed suit, adopting their own ordinances on Saturday (Sept. 18).

Photo via Google Maps

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A solar energy-powered lamp post (via Sandra Parra/Unsplash)

Fairfax County has committed to becoming carbon-neutral by 2050, and now, it has a plan to achieve that goal.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors accepted the county’s first-ever Community-wide Energy and Climate Action Plan (CECAP) when it met on Tuesday (Sept. 14).

First proposed by the board’s Environmental Quality Advisory Council in 2018, the plan features an inventory of the county’s greenhouse gas emissions and recommendations for how to curb them so the community can realize its aspirations of carbon neutrality.

“Together, the strategies and actions are intended to power individuals and organizations within the community, to engage in, lead, and champion the emissions reduction needed to achieve county-wide carbon neutrality,” Mount Vernon District Supervisor Dan Storck said, reading from the board matter he issued. “Climate change is a major existential crisis already causing major impacts in Fairfax County.”

The final report calls on both the county and its citizens to take far-reaching, significant actions.

Proposals include cutting the use of fossil fuel-burning cars, installing solar panels at home, creating more through recycling and composting programs, adopting more stringent green-building policies, and being a “conscious consumer.”

Storck’s motion passed 9-0, with Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity not present during the vote.

A few moments before the vote, Herrity said he was going to abstain due to concerns over timing, lack of proper community engagement, and cost, particularly in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“The economic outlook over the next few years is uncertain,” Herrity said. “Our decisions don’t operate in a vacuum. This plan will have planned and unintended impacts on the economy and taxpayers. Beyond what I’m imagining will be a very steep cost to implement this plan, it will also have a very serious impact on the affordability of homes, increasing the actual cost as well as permitting and regulatory costs.”

The rest of the board countered that the county can’t afford to wait any longer to address the already-existing threat of climate change.

“The cost of doing nothing is significant, if not life-threatening,” Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay said. “And I think most responsible people who are paying attention to the subject and the science…most certainly get that.”

Storck, who helped spearhead the CECAP as chair of the board’s environmental committee, reiterated that county operations and schools only account for about 5% of Fairfax County’s carbon emissions. The remaining 95% of emissions come from the private sector and the general community.

As noted in a presentation that Storck delivered, transportation and commercial and residential energy consumption are the two largest sources of greenhouse emissions. Combined, those areas produce more than 90% of all emissions in the county.

As a result, while the county will have a leadership role, this new plan is about asking the community to take the necessary steps to curb emissions, Storck said.

“There will be no area, sector, or part of our society that won’t be impacted [by the reduction goals in this plan],” he said. “How much? That’s largely a function of how aggressively we move forward.”

As the county worked to finalize the CECAP over the summer, the United Nations released a sobering report last month that said, even if future emissions are lowered, global temperatures will continue to rise until at least the middle of the 21st century, leading to more extreme weather and other worsening climate issues.

County staff told the board’s environmental committee in July that the CECAP’s implementation was already underway, a process that includes community outreach, public education, and an exhaustive review of existing county policies to see how they line up with the now-accepted plan.

Additional plans related to the initiative’s implementation, such as how the county can build on existing programs, will be presented to the board at an environmental committee meeting in early 2022.

Photo via Sandra Parra/Unsplash

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Plastic bag on ground (via Ivan Radic/Flickr)

Fairfax County will require certain businesses, but not all, to pay taxes on disposable plastic bags in a move to encourage customers to use reusable bags.

The Board of Supervisors passed the measure yesterday (Tuesday) after a new state law gave counties and cities the authority to begin imposing a 5-cent tax starting in 2021. The tax will take effect on Jan. 1, 2022 for Fairfax County.

In a statement released after the vote, Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay acknowledged the challenges of introducing a new tax while the county continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, but he says the impact of plastic bags on the environment “is too great” to not act.

“There are simple steps residents can take to avoid the over-use of disposable plastic bags,” he said. “A small fee on plastic bags is an opportunity for residents to look at their habits while providing the County with avenues for environmental cleanup, education, and access to environmentally friendly alternatives.”

Fairfax County is the first locality in Northern Virginia to adopt a plastic bag tax, according to Braddock District Supervisor James Walkinshaw’s office. Walkinshaw initiated a board motion to pursue the issue in July as part of a joint effort with McKay and Mount Vernon District Supervisor Dan Storck.

Consistent with the state law, the tax applies to grocery stores, convenience stores and drug stores, but there are exemptions for reusable plastic bags, bags used for perishable food to prevent damage or contamination, bags that carry prescription drugs or dry cleaning, and bags sold in bulk, such as garbage bags.

“Plastic bags frequently end up in a landfill, where it can take more than 500 years for the bag to disintegrate. Many plastic bags end up in our streams,” Fairfax County Office of Environmental and Energy Coordination Deputy Director Susan Hafeli said. “While the impact on human health is still being addressed, there is evidence that humans ingest and inhale thousands of microplastics per year, which result in the breakdown of disposable plastic bags and other plastic products.”

The Office of Environmental and Energy Coordination says the tax is intended to influence consumer behavior by discouraging consumers from using single-use disposable plastic bags.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. uses over 380 billion plastic bags and wraps yearly, requiring 12 million barrels of oil to create. Turtles, one of several aquatic creatures that suffer from the trash, die of starvation after eating them.

The Board of Supervisors approved the measure 9-1 with Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity — the lone Republican member — opposing it. He said food banks reported relying on the bags to distribute food and argued that it’s the wrong time to add any tax. Read More

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Fairfax County is considering taxing disposable plastic bags (via Takoma Park/Flickr)

The disposable plastic bags that remain ubiquitous at grocery and convenience stores could soon be subject to a five-cent tax in Fairfax County.

Under an ordinance proposed by county staff, the tax would be imposed on grocery, convenience, and drugstore retailers, rather than their customers. There would be some exceptions, including:

  • Plastic bags designed for reuse
  • Bags exclusively used to wrap meat, produce, and other perishable food items to avoid damage or contamination
  • Bags used to carry prescription drugs or dry cleaning
  • Bags sold in packages for garbage or other kinds of waste disposal

Building off of legislation passed by the Virginia General Assembly in April 2020, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors voted on July 14 to direct staff to draft the ordinance, which would take effect on Jan. 1, 2022 if adopted.

Proponents of the measure on the board argued that imposing a tax will incentivize individuals and retailers to use fewer disposable plastic bags, which generally wind up in landfills or as litter that can be harmful to the environment.

Revenue from the plastic bag tax could be used to fund environmental cleanup programs, education on reducing waste, pollution and litter mitigation programs, and reusable bags for food assistance benefit recipients, according to the state law.

Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity, the lone board member to oppose drafting the ordinance, took issue with the idea of introducing a new tax in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Past research also suggests paper bags and reusable cotton bags require more carbon emissions to manufacture than disposable plastic ones, so they need to be reused a lot to be more environmentally friendly.

The timing of the ordinance is important, since the state law lets retailers retain two cents of the imposed tax to offset the cost of changing their operations until Jan. 1, 2023, at which point the discount shrinks to just one cent.

Community members will get their first chance to weigh in on the proposed tax at a public hearing scheduled for the Board of Supervisors’ upcoming meeting on Tuesday (Sept. 14). Speakers can register to deliver testimony in person, by phone or video, or in writing.

Photo via Takoma Park/Flickr

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