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Virginia Lawmakers Eyeing Plastic Bag Tax, But Will It Work?

Ellwood Thompson reusable bags
Ellwood Thompson's, a local grocery store in Richmond, stopped offering plastic bags in 2008. (Roberto Roldan/VPM)

At Ellwood Thompson’s in Richmond up to 3,000 customers come into the grocery store each day.

As of 2008, the local grocer no longer carries plastic bags. It does carry recycled paper bags and has a wall of different sized reusable bags that can be purchased. That means that, increasingly, customers are leaving the store with the bags they brought.

Colin Beirne, Ellwood Thompson’s marketing director, said the decision to move away from plastic bags was mostly for environmental reasons.

“It falls right into our core values of reducing the waste we’re putting out there, and it just really resonates with our customers,” he said.

While convenient for shoppers, plastic bags can be an environmental eyesore, and they can also harm wildlife if they end up in rivers or oceans. They’re now in the sights of the Virginia General Assembly, where lawmakers are considering imposing a new tax on plastic bags.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans use more than 380 billion plastic bags each year. That requires about 12 million barrels of oil to make. Virginia's environmental groups have been asking for a plastic bag ban or tax for years. With the new Democratic majority in the General Assembly, that legislation seems likely to pass.

Del. Betsy Carr (D-Richmond) is carrying the house bill. She wants Virginia to join eight other states in taxing plastic waste.

“You’ve seen just what it’s doing to our oceans, our fish, our turtles and so forth. It’s something we can do locally,” Carr said.

Other legislators, like Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax City) and Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria), are carrying similar bills. 

Debate in the legislature has centered around a few key issues. The first is whether to tax or ban plastic bags. This year, environmentalists and retailers have negotiated a compromise: a state-wide tax of 5 cents per bag. 

The Virginia Retail Federation, which has always opposed regulations on plastic bags, is staying neutral this year as long as the tax is state-wide. 

Jodi Roth, a lobbyist for the retail federation, said it could be disastrous to not have uniformity.

“That would be a compliance nightmare for our members who have businesses across the state,” Roth said.

For environmental groups, a tax also gets at what they think is key - changing the behavior of consumers to bring reusable bags.

Steve Carter-Lovejoy, a volunteer lobbyist with the Sierra Club of Virginia, said the hope is it can nudge people toward more sustainable options.

“For some people it’s annoying, they don’t like it, but it’s not that hard to do,” he said. “Once you build that habit it’s pretty automatic.”

Proceeds from the tax are expected to go to some of the state’s various environmental funds like the Litter Control and Prevention Fund and the Water Quality Improvement fund. A penny out of every five cents collected will be returned to the retailer to offset any costs.

One major concern, however, is that taxing plastic bags could actually be worse for the environment. Without also taxing paper bags, studies suggest shoppers could feel pushed toward paper which is also bad for the environment.

While paper bags are biodegradable, they are actually much more resource intensive. They require cutting down and processing trees. 

Parker Slaybaugh, a lobbyist for the Virginia Food Industry Association, recently told a House committee that retailers are also worried about creating a shortage of paper bags.

“We are going to reach a point here in Virginia where our stores cannot keep them in stock. That’s an issue we will have now and with any greater increase in those paper bag demands,” Slaybaugh said. 

Currently, the Senate, but not the House bill, would also tax both paper and plastic bags.