Plastic bag tax?

Published 7:13 pm Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Isle of Wight County’s Board of Supervisors, on Feb. 4, discussed the possibility of enacting a 5-cent plastic bag tax in accordance with a new state law passed in 2020.

The law, which took effect Jan. 1 of this year, authorizes counties and cities — but not towns — to impose a tax of 5 cents per disposable plastic bag given to customers at grocery stores, convenience stores and drug stores. The tax would be added to the customer’s bill, with the retailer allowed to retain 2 cents per bag through 2023 and 1 cent every year thereafter.

The remainder paid to the collecting city or county would then be required to be used exclusively for environmental purposes, such as cleanup, education or providing reusable grocery bags — which some supermarkets are now asking people not to bring into their stores due to concerns over the spread of COVID-19.

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According to County Administrator Randy Keaton, the tax would potentially benefit local cotton farmers. With fewer bags in circulation, there’s less of a chance they’d be thrown from or blow off passing vehicles and end up in the farmers’ fields.

Keaton, who recently toured the cotton gin in Windsor, has seen first hand what can happen when plastic bags get mixed in with cotton during the ginning process.

“It gets strung all out in the bale and it can ruin the whole bale of cotton,” Keaton said.

In Smithfield, there’s a cotton field right beside a Dollar Tree and one on the outskirts of town “just covered with plastic bags,” Keaton said. “It looks like they’re growing them. That is a real cost for cotton farmers.”

Newport District Supervisor William McCarty, who has participated in community roadside trash cleanups, said he “would have loved to have had a nickel for every plastic bag” he and his group picked up along four miles of Smiths Neck Road.

Windsor District Supervisor Joel Acree, however, objected to two-fifths of the resulting revenue going to private businesses, and to its potential impact to people on fixed incomes buying food.

But there’s no tax if someone buys something at a hardware store instead of the grocery store.

“That’s what I don’t like about it,” said Hardy District Supervisor Rudolph Jefferson.

Smithfield District Supervisor Dick Grice suggested using the proceeds from the proposed tax to “thank organizations” that clean up the county’s roadsides, such as the one McCarty joined, though County Attorney Bobby Jones couldn’t say whether this would be an authorized use of such funds. Grice further suggested shoppers could avoid the new tax by asking for paper bags, as he used to do when he could then place those bags into a curbside recycling can. Now that Smithfield has ended its municipal recycling contract with Bay Disposal, Grice and his family have gone back to plastic.

The county already has an ordinance on its books prohibiting the ejection of litter from a moving vehicle, which specifies a minimum fine of $250 and up to 12 months in jail, and Virginia’s General Assembly is currently considering upping the minimum fine to $500.

But the problem, the supervisors agreed, is being able to prove it when littering occurs. According to Grice, the last time he checked with the Isle of Wight Sheriff’s Department, only two people were cited in 2019 for littering, and one of those cases was subsequently thrown out of court.

“We’ve got citizens asking can they video someone doing it and then turn that in to the sheriff’s department … all of it is being able to prove it,” McCarty said.

The issue of plastic bags ending up in farm fields has come up before in the county. In 2008, the late state Sen. Fred Quayle (R-Suffolk) had proposed legislation giving municipalities the authority to ban disposable plastic bags. Tom Wright, a former member of Isle of Wight’s Board of Supervisors, had also championed such a ban, according to The Smithfield Times archives. But a series of bag-banning bills, including Quayle’s, were defeated during the 2009 General Assembly session.