Virginia is definitely not keeping up with Mumbai, Eritrea, Rwanda, Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, China, South Africa, Tanzania, Australia, Ireland, and Italy. Nor with Washington, D.C., Montgomery County, MD, California, and other localities across the United States. When it comes to cleaning up our plastic bag problem, we are behind.
A proposed bill to add a plastic bag tax in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed (SB 925) was “passed by indefinitely,” i.e. defeated, on January 18, 2017, by the VA Senate Finance Committee. This bill would have imposed a five-cent per bag tax on plastic bags provided to customers by certain retailers in localities located wholly within the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, and directed revenues to be used to support the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Implementation Plan. The bill would have allowed every retailer that collects the tax to retain one cent of the five-cent tax. And, as studies of areas that have passed similar legislation show, would have reduced plastic bag litter in Virginia’s environmentally sensitive Chesapeake Bay Watershed region.
Meanwhile, neighboring localities have taken action. In 2009, Washington, D.C. imposed a 5 cent tax on plastic bags. Using the slogan “Skip the Bag, Save the River” the campaign helped people make the connection between plastic bag use and the huge litter problem D.C. was facing. According to a May 2015 article in The Washington Post, the nickels from the bag fee contributed about $10 million to the Anacostia River Clean Up and Protection Fund. While D.C. has struggled to scientifically measure the exact cleanup effects of the ban, in 2013 the Alice Ferguson Foundation surveyed 600 residents. The results of the survey showed that
District households, on average, estimated they had decreased bag use by 60 percent, from ten bags a week to four.
Legislation passed in January of 2012 requires retail establishments in Montgomery County, Maryland who provide customers a plastic or paper carryout bag at the point of sale to charge 5 cents per bag. The revenues from this charge are deposited into the County’s Water Quality Protection Charge (WQPC) fund. According to a July 2016 Washington Post article, Montgomery’s tax generated $10.4 million for pollution and stormwater control programs. More importantly, traps at 15 stream sites in the county monitored by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments showed a decline in the number of plastic bags collected, from 856 in 2011 to 777 in 2015. The figure from the first half of 2016 showed an even steeper drop, to 281.
And in locales farther away, more drastic measures have been taking place. Proposition 67 banning plastic bags passed by referendum this past November in California. China, not the country one usually thinks of when considering progressive environmental measures, announced on January 24 that it will prohibit the production and distribution of ultra-thin bags beginning June 1, 2017.
Why this attention on plastic bags? According to Plastic Waste Solutions, globally we use a trillion bags a year. That is approximately 10 million every 5 minutes. And only a small number of these end up recycled since they are not typically part of regular curbside recycling programs. Wildlife ingestion and entanglement, detrimental changes in water chemistry, and unsightly litter are all results of plastic bag use—and misuse. Production of the bags also causes pollution. While the majority of plastic bags in the United States are made from natural gas, there is air pollution associated with the emissions from extraction.
For an excellent description of China’s recent environmental wake up call and the devastating effects of plastic bag litter that has prompted government leaders worldwide—though not in Virginia— to enact legislation to control or ban the use of plastic bags, read http://www.worldwatch.org/node/5565.