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Report: Virginia's litter tax needs an overhaul

The James River's brown water flows towards Downtown
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
On high water days like Monday, the fast-moving James River whisks away countless pieces of debris from its shoreline — including no shortage of single-use, decomposition-resistant plastic.

It was first increased in 2021 — 40 years after its creation. Researchers say inflation has left the tax's effectiveness in the dust.

James River Park System Superintendent Giles Garrison is no stranger to litter.

“The James, as the collector of water and the city’s drinking water resource,” Garrison said, “is the place where we see it the most.”

According to Garrison, the park system is dependent on volunteers and hosts cleanups weekly. There’s just one issue: “It doesn’t go away.”

Zachary Huntington, associate director of the Ocean Conservancy–affiliated nonprofit Clean Virginia Waterways at Longwood University, said there’s more trash to go around these days — particularly single-use plastics.

“In the late ’90s, there were something like 2 billion water bottles sold every year in the United States. By 2020, that number was over 90 billion,” Huntington said.

According to a new CVW report authored by Huntington, Virginia has the lowest per capita litter tax revenue of any state with such a policy. He said that’s just not enough to keep pace with plastics.

What is the litter tax?

The commonwealth has been taxing producers and retailers of commonly littered goods since the 1980s and spending those taxes directly on pollution cleanup, education and recycling programs — but researchers say inflation has left those charges in the dust.

A “litter tax,” or a yearly flat fee on retail businesses that sell commonly littered products, was first collected in Virginia in 1981. An excise tax on soft drinks was levied around the same time, and a portion of the state beer and wine coolers excise tax was redirected to the state’s litter fund.

Huntington said those funds have been well-spent by local governments.

“They built incredible community cleanup programs with dedicated volunteers and propped up recycling programs,” Huntington said. “They were able to do all of this while Virginia's population was growing from about 5 million to over 8 million people we have today.”

But increases in funding over time have been few and far between. The maximum soft drinks excise tax was last increased in 2002 to $33,000 for distributors earning $50 million or more on soft drink sales — fees for businesses selling up to $10 million in soft drinks were unchanged.

The litter tax was hiked for the first time ever in 2021 — over 40 years after it became law. The base rate of $10 for any business location selling commonly littered products and an additional $15 fee for retailers of groceries, soft drinks and beer were doubled to $20 and $30, respectively.

There have been important changes to the types of litter, too. According to CVW research, 8 out of the 10 most commonly found items at waterway cleanups are made of plastic, with the only exceptions being beverage cans and glass bottles.

Plastic water bottles are not mentioned in Virginia’s litter tax laws. Huntington said they weren’t a major issue when the laws were written but are the defining litter today.

Most of the cash in the Litter and Recycling Grant Fund is distributed to Virginia localities based on population size and road mileage. Virginia Department of Environmental Quality data obtained by VPM News shows the City of Richmond was allocated $27,609 by the grant program for FY 2023.

That money is used to help support local recycling, litter cleanup and prevention programs. DEQ data shows the funds supported 4,524 volunteer cleanups statewide in 2022, along with hundreds of public and youth education events.

DEQ is required to release a report on how it uses grant funds at the end of every grant year. A draft version of the grant year 2022 report obtained from DEQ shows the fund disbursed $2.4 million.

CVW director Katie Register compared that to Washington state’s $15 million haul, noting that state has roughly 7.7 million residents to Virginia’s 8.6 million, per the 2021 census.

What could change? What should change?

Register said Virginia’s litter taxes are bringing in less than other states partly because the taxes haven’t changed much since they were implemented.

She argues that localities use grant money from litter taxes efficiently and could easily make use of more . A public opinion survey published by CVW and the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program last year found most Virginia voters support increasing taxes on producers of commonly littered products.

The CVW report lists seven recommendations for legislators to consider. They include increasing funding sources:

  • Tie the yearly retail litter tax to inflation and adjust it every five years  
  • Increase the percentage of the beer and wine cooler excise tax that goes to litter programs  
  • Increase the soft drinks excise tax and expand it to explicitly include all non-alcoholic beverages – including water 
  • Open more grant money up to nonprofits and university researchers 
  • Add a 50-cent tax to every pack of cigarettes sold 
  • Fund a statewide litter prevention campaign 
  • Provide exemptions for small businesses if litter taxes increase. 

“Let's not wait 40 years, like we did before, to take a look at it and increase it,” Register said. Lawmakers could also consider other policies that incentivize recycling, such as “bottle bills” — which set up rebates for consumers that return plastic bottles to be recycled.

Back at James River Park System, Garrison still hopes for change. but with the ever-increasing number of single-use plastics in the world, she thinks it would need to happen at the legislative level.

For now, the parks will continue hosting cleanups and reminding visitors: “Pack it in, pack it out.”

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.
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