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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Fairfax County has officially expanded its tax relief program for seniors and people with disabilities for the first time in more than 15 years.

At a Tuesday (Dec. 7) meeting, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved expanding the county’s real estate tax relief program by allowing people with higher incomes and net worth to qualify. A 75% tax relief bracket was also added, and the program gives some residents the option to defer payments.

The changes are expected to serve an additional 2,500 Fairfax County residents, according to Jay Doshi, director of the county’s Department of Tax Administration.

Doshi said the county’s tax relief program is now three times the size of Virginia Beach’s program, which is the next largest jurisdiction in the state.

“These proposals represent the largest change and an increase for our residents,” Doshi said.

The maximum gross income to qualify for tax relief was raised from $72,000 to $90,000, while the limit on net worth increased from up to $340,000 to $400,000.

The program also allows homeowners to exclude up to five acres of land that can’t be subdivided when calculating their net worth.

The 75% relief bracket would be available to households with a combined income of between $60,0001 to $70,000. But the amount of tax relief for all brackets would be capped at 125% of the mean assessed value of county homes.

Residents can also defer payment of real estate taxes if the household has a combined total income not more than $100,000 and a net worth of $500,000. Deferred taxes would be subject to interest.

Changes will go into effect on Jan. 1 and will be phased out over the next two years.

Older adults pushed for the changes at Tuesday’s board meeting.

“Having a tax relief program designed for the economic reality of 2006 does not make sense in the economic reality of 2021,” said Catherine Cole, chairwoman of the Fairfax Area Commission on Aging.

Cole noted that rapid inflation, rising economic insecurity among the county’s older populations, declining assets, and rising housing costs have strained many seniors, pushing some to leave Fairfax County.

“It would make sense to encourage those who are growing older to remain in their homes,” Cole said.

But others said the changes did not go far enough.

Daniel Campbell, a Fairfax County resident with two adult sons who are handicapped, said the county should consider freezing property tax assessments once residents retire and remove net worth as a requirement for seniors to qualify for property tax relief.

He said the net worth requirement penalizes people who have significant savings. Campbell and his wife hope to leave savings for their sons in the form of a special needs trust.

Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay said the changes — though imperfect — were long “overdue.”

“This has become an acute need at this point,” McKay said, calling the changes a significant advancement. He said the changes increased the yearly fiscal impact on the county from $28 million to $48 million.

McKay said he would like to evaluate tweaks to the program in the future.

Others said the county needs to find other ways to diversify its income beyond real estate taxes as the primary revenue source.

“Tax reform is really where we have to go,” said Hunter Mill District Supervisor Walter Alcorn. State law limits sources of revenue for jurisdictions.

But Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity — who supported the changes — said that controlling spending, not diversifying revenue should be the priority.

“It’s unfortunate that it took the pandemic for us to do this,” he said.

Graphic via Fairfax County Government

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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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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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