Plastic bag tax tabled

Published 11:58 pm Tuesday, February 16, 2010

RICHMOND — Legislators have killed another bill targeting the disposable plastic bags provided by grocery stores and other retailers.

A subcommittee of the House Finance Committee last week tabled House Bill 1115, which would have required stores to charge shoppers 5 cents for each non-reusable bag they give customers.

The bill’s sponsor, Delegate Adam Ebbin (D-Arlington) — wasn’t discouraged. He said his measure received “a pretty thorough and fair hearing.”

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The goal of HB 1115 was to encourage shoppers to avoid the tax by bringing their own reusable bags.

Ebbin said that before tabling his proposal, subcommittee members “spoke about what they perceived as the need for addressing the problem, whether or not it was in the exact form that the bill brought forward.”

“I think we’re making progress,” Ebbin said, “and I will be bringing it up again” at next year’s legislative session.

HB 1115 had support from the Sierra Club and other environmental groups.

“We were very much in favor of the bill, because plastic bags are harmful to wildlife,” said Tyla Matteson, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club. “For example, turtles mistake the plastic for jellyfish, and jellyfish is an important food source for them.”

She said that plastic bags end up in the ocean and other waters and that on land they cause the death of birds and other animals.

Merchants said they are concerned about the environment, too — but that government shouldn’t use tax policies and laws to force people to stop using plastic bags.

“It’s going to be market-driven, and it’s going to be consumer behavior that will be changed over time,” said George Peyton, a lobbyist for the Virginia Retail Federation.

Many stores offer incentives for shoppers to bring their own bags, and the retail federation has launched pilot programs to encourage plastic bag recycling in Alexandria and Isle of Wight County.

Retailers want consumers “to use plastic bags correctly so they don’t end up in our streams and they don’t end up littering our environment but they get recycled and reused,” Peyton said.

HB 1115 wasn’t the only bill targeting disposable bags this session. HB 521, sponsored by Delegate Joseph Morrissey, D-Highland Springs, would have imposed an outright ban on the use of plastic carryout bags by retailers — unless the bags were designed for reuse.

On Feb. 3, a subcommittee of the House Committee on Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources voted to table Morrissey’s bill.

Ebbin said the average Virginian uses about 300 non-reusable bags per year — a total of more than 2 billion bags annually. Only 1-2 percent of those bags are recycled, Ebbin said.

Some U.S. cities — including Washington, D.C. — have imposed a tax on plastic bags. San Francisco has banned such bags outright.