The city of Fredericksburg voted at their city council meeting on Sept. 28 to implement a tax on disposable plastic bags provided to customers shopping at local businesses in the city, which may have a financial impact on students and businesses at the university. The tax will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2022, and the money collected from this tax will go to environmental efforts and programs.
According to the government’s public information officer Sonja Cantu, “the proposed ordinance would impose a five-cent tax per each disposable plastic bag provided at the point of purchase to retail customers at grocery stores, drugstores and convenience stores.”
“A portion of the tax will be retained by the retailer as compensation for the costs they incur in collecting and remitting the tax,” she said. “Retailers will be permitted to keep two cents per bag until Jan. 1, 2023, after which they will retain one cent per bag. The revenue collected by the city must be appropriated to environmental programs such as pollution and litter mitigation, educational opportunities designed to reduce environmental waste, and providing reusable bags to recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Women, Infants and Children Program (WIC) benefits.”
Moreover, Cantu also notes that the tax would apply to “larger ‘big box’ retailers if those stores include a grocery store, convenience store or pharmacy.” Entities not set in a fixed location, such as the farmer’s market, would be exempt under the tax.
The proposal would also provide exemptions for certain types of plastic bags, specifically those that are “specifically designed for multiple reuse and that are at least four mils thick” and “solely used to wrap or package ice cream, meat, fish, poultry, produce, unwrapped bulk food items or other perishable food items in order to avoid damage or contamination,” said Cantu.
According to Cantu, plastic bags used to carry dry cleaning or prescription drugs, as well as those “sold in packages and intended for use as garbage, pet waste or leaf removal bags” would also be exempt under the bill.
The initiative to tax plastic bag use in the city comes following the 2020 Virginia General Assembly legislation that gives localities in the state the option to implement such a policy.
According to City Council Member At-Large Kerry Devine, the consideration of the proposal is one of several steps the local government is taking to make Fredericksburg a “more sustainable city.”
“It is a tax that would be best not collected—the ultimate goal is to make reusable bags, or no bags for small purchases, a habit,” she said. “Those bags end up in landfills or in streams and riparian areas. They get caught in trees and brush and can harm fish and wildlife. Living in close proximity to the Rappahannock River, one can see firsthand the damage plastic bags can do. The City of Fredericksburg worked hard to get the River easement in place, this is one more step in protecting that resource.”
If successfully implemented, the tax is certain to have an economic impact on small businesses in the city, as owners could be forced to absorb the cost associated with the policy. Owner of Patriot Subs Brian Picero said that while he’s supportive of getting rid of plastic bags, he does not agree with the current proposal.
“I do believe that we need to get rid of plastic bags, but I don’t think this is the way to do it,” he said. “I don’t really support it because [Patriot Subs] can’t absorb that. It’s a lose-lose no matter how you look at it. Either we’re absorbing it and we’re already struggling… or the consumer is gonna pay more.”
UMW students had mixed reactions to the proposed plastic bag tax. Senior communication and digital studies and music double major Jean Mondoro said that she expects it to be met with “some support and some backlash, especially from college students.”
“There are those who would agree with the environmental factors and support it,” she said. “But on the other hand, there are people like me, who don’t understand all of it and are just trying to pay tuition. It sounds like one more thing to worry about.”
Senior political science major Tyler Tarrh reacted positively to the initiative, stating that he thinks the policy “is an effective way to reduce plastic in our environment.”
“Even if the plastic use does not increase, at least additional revenue is going to the city and the business,” he said. “I’m a broke college student and I don’t think an additional five cents would matter to people much in the long run.”
Earlier this year, Gov. Ralph Northam signed Executive Order 77, which requires state agencies to begin phasing out the “buying, selling or distribution of all nonmedical single-use plastic and expanded polystyrene objects.” However, according to UMW Dining General Manager David Schneider, state universities have been granted extensions in complying with the mandate.
“Some of the deadlines for meeting the new standards have been extended,” he said. “I can tell you that dining continues to work closely with the university to achieve the EO77 expectation. All options to meet the Governor’s EO are not readily available.”
Schneider went on to note the difficulties associated with implementing such a mandate, saying that “the products that are available come with a much higher price point, and are not consistently available to purchase.”
“We face numerous daily challenges with supply chain and labor,” he said. “For example, eliminating single-use plastic water bottles was part of the ‘Immediate Cessation of Use’ in EO77. Suppliers are challenged with aluminum shortages (due to COVID), which in turn does not provide us with options outside of plastic.”
“We continue to purchase biodegradable/compostable disposable products maintaining par levels that meet business demands,” he added.