by Steve Haner
The plastic bag tax recently approved in Roanoke and several Northern Virginia localities, created by the General Assembly in 2020 as a local option, is also coming to the City of Richmond. It was promised in the same September 13 Richmond City Council “climate crisis” resolution that implied a future closure of the Richmond Gas Works.
As has been the case with the vote on the future of natural gas, Richmond’s dying local new media has missed or ignored the story. Richmond is not one of the localities mentioned directly in this summary of the bag tax status published by Virginia Mercury today.
Proponents claim the tax is not about raising revenue, but instead an effort to suppress bag usage. It is wonderful to see some people do understand how taxes suppress economic activity, even progressives (when it suits them).
No ordinance to impose the tax in Richmond is pending yet. Instead, recognizing who truly is being hurt by this spreading idea (the poor), the resolution pledges:
Council, prior to the imposition of a tax on disposable plastic bags, hereby commits to conducting a robust community engagement process to determine key equity challenges, and plan support for low-income city residents and small businesses to support such residents in a transition to reusable bags.
Council… to the extent permitted by law, hereby commits to appropriating revenues generated from a disposable plastic bag tax to support an equitable implementation of the disposable plastic bag tax…
So, the city’s apparent intent is to use the bag tax revenue to provide reusable bags for its citizens. That seems in general agreement with the authorized uses for the money, as outlined in the fiscal impact statement for bill posted on the Department of Taxation’s website:
All revenue accruing to the county or city from a disposable plastic bag tax would be required to be appropriated for the purposes of environmental cleanup, providing education programs designed to reduce environmental waste, mitigating pollution and litter, or providing reusable bags to recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Women, Infants, and Children Program (WIC) benefits.
The Tax Department published guidance on implementing the tax September 1, setting off this round of approvals.
At five cents per bag, say 50 cents if you leave the grocery store with ten bags, within a couple of weeks that reusable bag pays for itself. But the more likely outcome will be a different answer to the question: paper or plastic?
That is what Food Lion told the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors to expect before its recent vote in favor of imposing the tax there. The customers will simply choose paper,
deepening our reliance on international paper bag supply sources… constrained international sources, resulting in additional carbon emissions from the transport of bags as well as additional trucks on the County’s roads to transport the heavier, denser paper bags. For just these two stores, we estimate 12 additional trucks would be added to already congested roads in Fairfax County to accommodate the anticipated shift from plastic to paper.
In efforts for green virtue, trade-offs abound. The bag industry has pushed back by pointing out the plastic bags are recyclable already (although they don’t degrade as readily as paper), actually use few resources, and are re-used more often that many realize. The most common uses are to line trash cans or pick up dog poop. Most household keep a stash handy for several things. An industry sheet of counterpoints used during the Fairfax County debate is worth perusing.
The bag tax is one of the smaller of the myriad tax increases approved by General Assembly Democrats with their new majority, and you may recall it only barely got out of the starting gate on a narrow House of Delegates vote. A few votes needed to switch around after initial failure (as reported in 2020).
The House sponsor was Richmond Democrat Betsy Carr, now in a contested race, and she received support from the other Democrats in the Richmond region. Six Democrats, including Henrico County’s Schuyler VanValkenburg and Southside’s Rosalyn Tyler, basically voted both ways, or tried to. After voting aye they filed a note with the House Clerk for inclusion in the official record that they “intended to vote nay.”