Five Virginia jurisdictions have joined a growing trend across America of taxing plastic shopping bags in hopes of reducing and eventually eliminating their use.
The bags, designed as single-use items, are among the most common forms of litter, polluting land and waterways alike and constituting a substantial portion of the nation’s plastic waste.
Slow to decompose and made from petroleum products, the bags pose myriad dangers even when disposed of properly.
Over time, the plastic may discharge harmful chemicals into drinking water supplies or threaten marine animals and other wildlife that think it is food.
The mid-Atlantic state of Virginia allows any county or city to force grocery stores, pharmacies and other retailers to collect a 5-cent tax on every plastic bag provided to shoppers. Arlington and Fairfax counties, along with the cities of Alexandria, Fredericksburg and Roanoke, have done just that beginning January 1.
First ban in Bangladesh
Taking a stand against plastic bags didn’t originate in the United States.
In 2002, Bangladesh became the first country to ban thin plastic bags, which were blamed for clogging drainage systems and contributing to catastrophic flooding.
Other countries followed suit, either banning them outright or taxing them to discourage their use, which ballooned to a million bags per minute worldwide in 2011, according to the United Nations.
According to World Atlas, about 60 countries have instituted plastic bag controls, including China, India and Cambodia. Several African countries have banned them, including Kenya, Cameroon, Rwanda and Tanzania.
Despite such efforts, plastic bags continue to litter the globe, from oceans to the polar ice caps to even the summit of Mount Everest.
In the United States, California was the first to pass a statewide ban in 2014. Since then, several other states, including Hawaii, New York and Oregon, have banned single-use plastic bags.
Support is growing in the U.S. as more local governments join the cause.
But not everyone is on board, notably the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance, a lobbying group representing the U.S. plastic bag manufacturing and recycling industry.
“Taxes on plastic bags will drive up costs for consumers already struggling with rapidly increasing grocery bills due to widespread inflation,” Zachary Taylor, the group’s director, said in a statement to VOA. When disposed of properly, the plastic grocery bag is the carryout bag with the fewest environmental impacts, he asserted.
However, Ruthie Cody, who lives in Alexandria, Virginia, supports allowing local jurisdictions to implement bag taxes.
“I don’t think it should be mandatory nationwide but something local governments should decide,” she said, “and the tax is minimal for the everyday consumer, but still effects change.”
By contrast, Linda Joy Wilson, a Fairfax County resident, thinks the tax should be standard across the country. “I’ve lived in other states with the plastic bag tax and have noticed that it cuts down on plastic bags usage and people bring their own single-use disposable plastic bags in grocery, drug and convenience stories,” she said.
The counties of Arlington and Fairfax and the city of Alexandria plan to use the income generated from the bag tax to fund environmental cleanup projects, pollution and litter mitigation, and education programs.
“We expect there might be some resistance to the tax,” Kate Daley, an environmental analyst for the Fairfax County government, told VOA. “But we’ve also seen a lot of enthusiasm from people who believe it will make a big difference in protecting the environment and help curb pollution in streams, trees and roadways.”
“I wish it had happened sooner,” said Patty Hagan, a Fairfax County resident. “Everyone should use reusable bags.”
Another county resident, David Toms, agreed. “But I think they need to ban the plastic bags altogether since they harm wildlife. I live on a lake and it’s disgusting how frequently I see them in the water.”
But Paul Thurmond in Arlington, Virginia, doesn’t think the tax will make a big difference. “People who want the bags will buy them anyway and then just throw them out, which seems to defeat the purpose,” he said.
The goal is to “get people not to use the plastic bags” or refrain from throwing them on the ground, said Erik Grabowsky, solid waste bureau chief for Arlington, Virginia. “It’s up to individuals to do the right thing.”