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Roanoke approves plastic shopping bag tax; set to take effect Jan. 1
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Roanoke approves plastic shopping bag tax; set to take effect Jan. 1

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Roanoke has become the first local government in the state to adopt an ordinance taxing disposable plastic shopping bags.

Once the measure takes effect Jan. 1, patrons of grocery, convenience and drug stores in the city will owe the merchant a nickel for each plastic bag used to carry out purchases.

Roanoke, already recognized as environmentally conscious for its use of propane and electric vehicles, became the first locality to target single-use bags made from chemicals Monday.

“I think the community is ready for this,” Vice Mayor Trish White-Boyd said before the city council voted.

The Virginia General Assembly authorized localities to tax bags last year, but no other locality had done so before Monday night.

Roanoke’s law will prompt the Virginia Department of Taxation to publish guidelines necessary to bring the program fully into being, according to officials who also say guidelines are needed partly because the state law doesn’t define a grocery store. It’s still unclear whether the tax would apply to purchases at big-box retailers such as Walmart and Target that sell both food and non-food items.

Roanoke’s goal is to curb street litter, protect waterways, minimize solid waste and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, according to the measure’s opening passage.

Nell Boyle, Roanoke’s sustainability coordinator, called the bag tax “the tax you can avoid.” Folks who carry their own bags when shopping won’t need plastic and won’t pay the tax, in other words.

Maryland and other places that already tax bags found that consumer education took about a year, after which the tax produced decreasing revenue because bag usage declined, Boyle said.

“That’s really what we’re after, a behavior change,” Boyle said.

Discarded plastic bags pass through the city’s stormwater system and enter rivers or are carried to waterways by wind. “If you’ve ever done a river cleanup, they’re everywhere,” Boyle said.

Discarded plastic bags also contribute to the presence of microscopic bits of plastic that pollute ecosystems and can harm their residents, both human and animal, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. A 50-year-old environmental advocacy group in New York, it supports consumers choosing alternatives to plastic, including fabric shopping bags and reusable beverage containers, and, at the institutional level, bans on single-use plastic.

Retailers told city officials they know plastic pollution is a threat and were already taking steps to address it. “I think a lot of the major chains are moving in the direction of eliminating plastic bags anyway,” said council member Bill Bestpitch. However, store representatives who had a Zoom call with city officials said they “would prefer for us to leave it alone and let the marketplace take care of it itself,” the councilman said.

Consumers are looking forward to hearing retailers describe how the process will work, at both full-service and self-checkouts and for online orders. Another question is whether paper bags will be provided and, if so, whether there will be a fee.

The tax would not apply to the plastic bags that stores provide to carry unpackaged vegetables, packaged meat, ice cream or bulk items such as nuts — just the shopping bags.

No estimate was given for the likely revenue for the city. State law requires that the city spend its share of the proceeds on education, environmental cleanup and the distribution of reusable bags to some people. Participants in government nutrition programs — the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, and the Women, Infants and Children Program, called WIC — are to receive free reusable bags.

A portion of the revenue will go to merchants to pay for implementation and administration of the tax, under current program rules.

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Jeff Sturgeon covers the city of Roanoke, banking and transportation. Phone: (540) 981-3251. Email: jeff.sturgeon@roanoke.com. Mail: 201 W. Campbell Ave., Roanoke, VA 24011.

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