County supervisors have started wheels turning to impose a five-cent tax on disposable plastic bags in Loudoun.
Supervisors on Tuesday, Sept. 15 directed county staff members to bring information on the possible new tax the county’s finance committee with a 5-4 vote. The General Assembly this year passed a new law allowing localities to impose the tax, at five cents per single-use plastic bag. The new law requires that retailers get a portion of the proceeds, and the rest go toward environmental cleanup, education programs to reduce environmental waste, mitigating pollution and litter, or providing reusable bags to recipients of benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or Women, Infants, and Children Program. Under existing local tax law, some money collected in towns would go to those towns.
Supervisor Koran T. Saines (D-Sterling) led the push, and not for the first time.
However some supervisors were skeptical, including because grocery stores have limited the use of reusable bags during the pandemic. Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) worried the extra tax could add up and make a difference for lower-income people in the country.
“The remedy to fix behavior is not always a tax,” Letourneau said. “And I just don’t support adding something, especially at this particular time, when there is a lot of uncertainty out there. People aren’t sure of the right thing to do at the grocery store.”
“I don’t believe we have the luxury to act like what’s happening in our environment and our climate is not an issue,” said Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large).
County staff members previously estimated the tax could bring in $780,000 a year, with the county and towns keeping $470,000 a year until 2023. At that point, the portion that goes to the retail would drops from 2 cents to 1 cent, leaving the government $620,000.
Disposable plastic bags are a significant source of litter and pollution, as well as posing a significant danger to wildlife. The Environmental Protection Agency reported that in 2017, the U.S. produced about 4.14 million tons of plastic bags, of which only 390,000 tons was recycled. Plastic is not generally biodegradable.
However reusable bags are more energy- and resource-intensive to manufacture and transport, meaning shoppers must commit to use them many times before they break even on environmental impact. A widely-reported 2018 Danish study found a range of results, from 35 uses for a polyester bag to 20,000 uses for an organic cotton bag; however that study did not take into account the impacts of plastic litter.
A report is expected in the county finance committee as part of supervisors’ annual budget work.