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Plastic or reusable? Roanoke bag tax to force the question Jan. 1

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Soon after New Year’s would be a good time to rethink the two options for bagging purchases while shopping in Roanoke, one bad for the environment and one good.

Pay the city’s 5-cent bag tax that takes effect Jan. 1, and you can keep using fresh, disposable plastic bags at checkout.

Or you can kick the habit, bring your own bags to the store and pay nothing.

“Keep your change. Bring your bag,” the city says in its campaign slogan.

Officials hope the new tax curbs use of plastic shopping bags and their damaging environmental effects by creating an incentive for shoppers to switch to reusable bags, such as those made of jute, hemp, cotton or synthetic fiber. It aligns with an expansive campaign against single-use plastics that also encourages carrying a refillable water bottle instead of buying bottled water.

Large retailers support the plan, said Nell Boyle, city sustainability outreach coordinator.

Taxing shoppers to cut back on plastic use has already happened in places such as Washington, D.C., which has reported reductions in bag pollution since its law began in 2010. Washington’s slogan is Skip the Bag, Save the River. That’s the Anacostia River.

Northern Virginia localities have bag taxes that will also take effect next year.

The Roanoke ban will strike some as imperfect. It doesn’t apply at home-improvement outlets Lowe’s and Home Depot or department stores such as Kohl’s or Belk, though it will apply at Walmart, Sam’s Club and Target. In addition, it’s unclear whether a tax this size will alter behavior. Using an environmental group’s estimate that the typical American family takes home 1,500 bags a year, paying the tax would cost $6.25 a month or $75 a year.

Denver, whose slogan Roanoke borrowed, taxes plastic shopping bags at a dime each.

Here’s a look at more details:

What’s going on? Roanoke is on track to become one of the first cities in the state to tax plastic shopping bags received at checkout to carry purchases.

What bags are taxed? Disposable plastic bags provided at grocery stores, convenience stores and drug stores. The city estimates that 130 retailers will owe the tax and expects most to pass the cost onto customers.

Any exceptions? Yes. No tax will apply to paper bags, nor to the thin, clear bags often provided in produce and meat departments to carry loose or wet foods such as potatoes, kale, ice cream or meat.

What if I order my groceries online? Doesn’t matter. The tax applies to bags used for in-store purchases, curbside pickup, to-go purchases and delivered goods.

Are big box stores covered? Mostly. Because Walmart, Target and Sam’s Club locations contain a grocery store, they’re obligated to tax every plastic shopping bag distributed regardless of what the customer buys, whether it’s a bottle of anti-freeze or a cantaloupe.

What about neighborhood convenience stores? They’re likely to be covered by the new law.

What if I receive government assistance to buy food? People who buy food with financial assistance from Virginia’s Women, Infants, and Children program and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program cannot use their benefits to pay bag fees they owe. They must pay them with cash, check or their own bank card.

What happens to the money? Participating Roanoke stores must send 3 cents of every nickel collected to the Virginia Department of Taxation monthly. They can keep the rest to offset their expense to collect the tax.

Then what? The state will send Roanoke the tax proceeds, less certain fees. Tax authorities have not yet revealed those fees.

What will Roanoke do with the money? The state law that allows localities to charge the tax specifies that the money go toward environmental cleanup and education; efforts to reduce pollution; and reusable bags for WIC and SNAP participants. Roanoke bought 5,000 reusable bags for them and may need to order more.

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

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