VIRGINIA BEACH — With Wegmans announcing this week that plastic bags would no longer be available at its Virginia Beach location beginning July 1, regional environmental activists see an opportunity to spread the word about the harm plastic bags do to local waterways.
Some are now lobbying Virginia Beach to pass a measure that would impose a tax on disposable plastic bags. The city could vote as soon as next month on such a proposal — a move advocates say could dramatically reduce the amount of debris in local waterways.
From 2015-20, plastic bags were the fourth most common type of litter found during the International Coastal Cleanup, conducted by Ocean Conservancy.
“I think the largest benefit (from a national chain like Wegmans ending the use of plastic bags) is the awareness of the public to the dangers of plastic bags, whether that’s to tourism, to habitats, to sea creatures all the way down to microplastics,” said Lisa Jennings, Hampton Roads grassroots coordinator for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Consideration of a bag “tax” in Virginia Beach comes after the Virginia General Assembly passed House Bill 534 in 2020 which allowed any county or city to charge a 5-cent fee for each disposable plastic bag that certain retailers provide.
Local governments began discussing the ordinance in earnest in May 2021, and since then, eight communities have approved it: Alexandria, Albemarle County, Arlington County, Fairfax County, Falls Church, Fredericksburg, Loudon County and Roanoke.
A draft ordinance under consideration by the Virginia Beach City Council would impose a 5-cent fee for each “disposable plastic bag provided to a consumer of tangible personal property by retailers in grocery stores, convenience stores, or drugstores.”
Retailers will keep 1 cent, and the other 4 collected by the Department of Taxation must be spent on environmental cleanup, educational programs aimed at reducing pollution, mitigating pollution and litter or providing reusable bags to recipients of SNAP and WIC benefits.
Jim Deppe, advocacy coordinator for Lynnhaven River NOW, provided an overview of the bag tax issue to the City Council earlier this month ― describing the 5-cent charge as more of a fee than a tax because it can be avoided by using reusable bags.
The council will hold a meeting to hear public comment on the matter on Tuesday and is expected to vote July 5.If approved, the ordinance would go into effect on Jan. 1.
If Virginia Beach were to adopt the bag tax, Deppe said in an email that he would expect the city to see a 70-80% drop in plastic bag debris in its waterways in the first year. He based the estimate on similar results reported by an environmental group that has monitored Fairfax County’s waterways since its ordinance went into effect in January.
Environmental activists list multiple benefits to reducing plastic bag debris. Turtles have long been known to ingest plastic bags after mistaking them for jellyfish, and swimming into a floating plastic bag could make a tourist not want to return to city beaches, Jennings said. Plastic bags also get stuck in storm drains and complicate Hampton Roads’ flooding problem, she said.
Fees for plastic bags have led to a dramatic reduction in their use and in pollution where they’ve been implemented. Washington saw a 72% reduction in the amount of plastic bags found in waterways during cleanups in the first 10 years since implementing a 5-cent fee. The city also collected $19 million in revenue during that timeframe, which was used to install traps that helped remove bags and other debris from waterways and to create environmental education programs for students, Deppe said.
“Around here there are so many watersheds that need to be freed up of plastic bags that we feel it’s very important to move on and follow the lead of the other communities in Virginia that have implemented this,” Deppe told the Virginia Beach council June 7.
At the meeting, council member Guy Tower expressed gratitude to the activists who have pushed the plastic bag fee and said test cases show clear benefits.
“This is a community-wide effort,” Tower said. “It makes so much sense to me that I can’t imagine anybody not supporting it.”
Restaurants, food banks, farmers markets and food trucks would not be affected. The draft ordinance also would not apply to plastic wraps on food to keep it from spoiling or being contaminated, durable plastic bags designed to be reused, plastic bags used to carry dry cleaning or prescription drugs and plastic bags for garbage and pet waste.
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Jennings said the 5-cent fee is a “nominal” amount, which would cost the average family an estimated $5 per year if they were to pay for the plastic bags each time they went shopping. But she said it could cause shoppers to think twice before choosing plastic.
“It’s the thought process of, ‘Oh, I have to pay for this object, and what is the object’s value when I’m just using it for the couple of minutes that I’m going to use it?’” she said.
Wegmans will offer paper bags for 5 cents each, but its goal is to encourage customers to switch to reusable bags, which it calls “the best option to solve the environmental challenge of single-use grocery bags.” The store will donate the money from paper bag charges to a local food bank, according to a news release.
Aldi, Lidl and Trader Joe’s are other large grocery store chains that have moved away from plastic bags.
Wegmans said that in stores that already have eliminated plastic bags, paper bags have been used for 20-25% of transactions, while reusable bags were used for the remaining transactions.
Virginia Beach residents who would like to provide public comment on the proposed ordinance can email the City Council at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gavin Stone, email@example.com