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Ready the reusable bags: City and county will start taxing plastic bags Jan. 1

A person wearing a short-sleeve button-down shirt, pants, and lace-up shoes takes a wide stride across a parking lot, with three plastic bags full of groceries in one hand.

Editor’s note: The local chapter of the Sierra Club is collecting reusable bag donations at Dogwood Refillery in the Seminole Square Shopping Center and Refill Renew at McIntire Plaza to distribute to people who need them. A previous version of this story omitted this.

People who shop in Charlottesville and Albemarle County might want to make a New Year’s resolution to remember to bring reusable shopping bags to the store.

Beginning Jan. 1, 2023, both localities will impose a five cent tax on single-use plastic bags at grocery stores, pharmacies and convenience stores. Convenience stores include places like 7-11 and Wawa. The tax will not apply to strictly retail outlets, such as clothing stores, but any bag used at the checkout of a large retailer that contains a grocery store or a pharmacy — like the Walmart Supercenter or the Target on Route 29 — will also cost five cents.

The tax will apply only to the sacks used at the checkout counter. It will not apply to plastic produce bags or other types of plastic bagged food packaging.

Both the Charlottesville City Council and the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors voted this year to adopt the tax in an attempt to reduce the pollution caused by single-use plastic bags.

Read more about the plastic bags tax and how it came to be

Plastic bags wreak havoc on the environment. National Geographic calls it one of the most pressing environmental issues of our time, as hundreds of thousands of tons of plastic bags are discarded globally each year. Bags that end up in landfills will take 1,000 years to decompose. Those that end up in waterways kill animals and ruin entire ecosystems, said the United Nations, according to reporting by the BBC. All the while, decomposing plastics leak harmful chemicals into the water, the soil, and even the air.

The Virginia legislature passed a law in 2020 allowing Virginia localities to impose a tax of five cents per disposable plastic bag given at checkout. Retailers are responsible for collecting the tax and submitting it to the Virginia Department of Taxation. The law allows retailers to either pay the tax themselves, or pass it along to customers. 

Those funds will come back to the city and the county to use in four different ways, as outlined in the legislation:

  • Educate the public to reduce environmental waste;
  • Mitigate pollution and litter;
  • Clean up the environment;
  • Fund reusable bags for people who receive benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program (SNAP) and its subsidiary program specifically for women, infants and children (WIC). Those benefits have strict guidelines for what they can and cannot be used for, and they cannot be used to purchase grocery bags.

Both the city and the county say they will use its funds to purchase and distribute reusable bags for people who receive SNAP and WIC benefits.

The city has not yet estimated the revenue it will earn from the tax, said Alex Ikefuna, director of the city’s Office of Community Solutions. However, in October, City Council approved $20,000 in funding to get the reusable bag program started. 

The city has already placed an order for bags and will distribute them via its Department of Social Services, which already serves those receiving SNAP and WIC benefits, said Ikefuna. All told, that’s about 3,600 households, or 5,000 individuals. People must get the bags directly from their social services coordinator.

Albemarle County has not decided where it will distribute bags. Officials say they will post more information to the county’s website in January. The county expects to earn about $20,000 from the tax in the first six months of the year, said Abbey Stumpf, the county’s communications and public engagement manager. 

Down the road, the county will evaluate the bag tax revenue as part of the budget process. It could be used to continue the reusable bag distribution program or in another way, said Stumpf. 

In anticipation of the tax taking effect, the local chapter of the Sierra Club has been collecting reusable bags for months. At the moment, the Sierra Club is collecting bags at Dogwood Refillery in the Seminole Square Shopping Center, and Refill Renew at McIntire Plaza.

So far, the group has distributed about 200 bags to food pantries in Charlottesville and Earlysville, and to Reid’s Super Save Market on Preston Avenue in Charlottesville. Club member Michael Pillow has just under 100 more in the trunk of his car, and he hopes to get them to folks who need bags but do not receive SNAP or WIC benefits.

Both localities have set up web pages with information about the tax, bag distribution programs, answers to frequently asked questions, and more:

  • Charlottesville’s Plastic Bag Tax page
  • Albemarle County’s Bring Your Own Bag page

The state also has more information on different circumstances in which the tax may, or may not apply.