LAST YEAR, the General Assembly decided to let each locality in Virginia decide whether or not to tax those ubiquitous plastic bags most people use to haul home groceries and the myriad other things they buy as a way to reduce their use. So the City of Fredericksburg is now considering a 5-cent tax on each bag. There are both pluses and minuses to this proposal, but City Council members should remember that sometimes fixing one problem just creates another.
On the plus side, plastic bags have a tendency to wind up on the shoulders of roads, in local waterways, and elsewhere due to the fact that they are “free” and very lightweight. Even some of the most conscientious non-litterers have accidentally launched these bags into the environment on a windy day and didn’t bother to run after them. It remains to be seen whether paying a 5-cent tax on each bag would change that equation, but that seems unlikely.
Since you generally get less of something that’s taxed, on the surface it seems obvious that charging consumers a nickel for each plastic bag they take home would reduce the total volume. But that didn’t happen in the District of Columbia, where a 2014 analysis by the Washington Post found that “city revenue figures … show[ed] no continuing decrease in the use of disposable bags. In fact, bag tax collections have proven remarkably stable since the nickel-per-bag fee débuted in January 2010.”
The D.C. bag tax wound up transferring millions of dollars from consumers, including elderly and low-income residents, to city coffers with little effect on the number of plastic bags being used, as measured by the amount of bag tax revenue—which went up every year instead of down, from $1.5 million in 2010 to $2.3 million by 2017.
So a 5-cent bag tax would likely raise revenue for Fredericksburg, but not necessarily reduce the volume of plastic bags in circulation. If the city does decide to impose a bag tax, Council member Kerry Devine suggested that 3 cents should go to the city, with the remaining 2 cents distributed to retailers to help them pay for the added costs associated with switching to paper bags or even losing customers to other retailers outside the city limits.
Paper bags are more ecologically friendly, but they do have a major disadvantage: unlike plastic, they tend to lose strength when wet. You just have to have one paper bag break when it’s raining and spill your purchases onto the pavement before you either willingly pay the tax for plastic or get some sturdy reusable bags.
The problem with reusables is that few people bother to wash them after every trip to the store, so they tend to get quite dirty and can even harbor unhealthy amounts of bacteria. One study found that “reusable bags are seldom if ever washed and often used for multiple purposes. … Bacteria were found in 99 percent of reusable bags tested, but none in new bags or plastic bags.” After these past 15 months, the last thing the city needs is an outbreak of e-coli.
Montgomery County, Md., followed D.C. and instituted a 5-cent plastic bag tax in 2012, but stopped enforcement efforts last year due to fears that reusable bags would spread the coronavirus.
Cotton bags are particularly susceptible to contamination, although using less absorbent nylon or polypropylene bags, which are made out of petroleum, sort of defeats the environmental effort.
Then there’s the fact that many people reuse plastic grocery bags to line wastebaskets, carry armloads of items or pick up dog poop. These secondary uses mean that not all plastic grocery bags remain in the single-use category, which is ideally where the city’s aggressive plastic pollution measures should be aimed.