Below are some frequently asked questions on the disposable bag tax and their corresponding answers. For any additional questions or comments, please email us.
Plastic bags frequently end up in local watersheds, polluting our natural landscapes and negatively impacting the fish and wildlife that depend on clean waterways. The plastic bag tax is intended to influence consumer behavior by discouraging consumers from using single-use disposable plastic bags, thereby reducing plastic bag residue in our local streams, rivers and lakes. As an added benefit, the revenue collected from the plastic bag tax can help fund pollution reduction and environmental education programs.
With the adoption of the ordinance on September 14, 2021, the tax became effective January 1, 2022. This followed the timeline defined by the enabling legislation, which says that each local ordinance imposing the tax shall provide for the tax to become effective on the first day of any calendar quarter. The county or city shall, at least three months prior to the date the tax is to become effective, provide a certified copy of such ordinance to the Tax Commissioner.
Tax revenue likely could fund existing litter collection programs, such as the Department of Public Works’ Operation Stream Shield, through which individuals experiencing homelessness are provided a stipend for removing litter from county streams. Although technically outside of Fairfax County Government, the County often works with Clean Fairfax, which works on litter prevention efforts, promotes community cleanups and provides educational resources on reducing, reusing and recycling.
The county may also provide reusable bags to recipients of certain federal food support programs, which is one of four allowable uses of the plastic bag tax revenue under the enabling legislation, a new program or fund would likely need to be created. Funding for the provision of reusable bags to other county residents would need to come out of alternative funding sources.
The tax shall be collected by retailers in grocery stores, convenience stores and drug stores. Definitions for each are included in the Virginia Department of Taxation final guidelines and are included below:
- Grocery store means an establishment that has an enclosed room in a permanent structure and that sells food and other items intended for human consumption, including a variety of ingredients commonly used in the preparation of meals. This definition does not include food banks, farmers markets, or mobile food units.
- Drugstore means an establishment that sells medicines prepared by a licensed pharmacist pursuant to a prescription and other medicines and items for home and general use.
- Convenience store means an establishment that (i) has an enclosed room in a permanent structure where stock is displayed and offered for sale and (ii) maintains an inventory of edible items intended for human consumption consisting of a variety of such items of the types normally sold in grocery stores.
Affected retailers include convenience stores that also sell gasoline. In such locations, disposable plastic bags provided at check-out to customers to carry groceries are subject to the tax.
Additionally, larger retailers that contain a grocery store, a convenience store, or a drug store are subject to the tax. Such retailers shall collect the tax on all disposable plastic bags provided, regardless of the items sold. However, no store will be considered a convenience store solely because it offers a limited selection of snacks and beverages for sale at the point of sale. In order to be subject to the tax in a locality, a grocery store, convenience store, or drug store must maintain regular business hours at a fixed place of business in the locality.
Why are certain retailers included and others excluded? Why aren’t all retailers covered by this new tax?
The types of retailers covered by this plastic bag tax were determined at the state level. The Fairfax County plastic bag tax ordinance is a reflection of the legislation passed by the General Assembly in 2020. If you would like to advocate for a broader plastic bag tax, please contact your representatives in Richmond.
No, the plastic bag tax includes several exceptions, as outlined in the enabling legislation. These exceptions are:
- Durable plastic bags with handles that are specifically designed and manufactured for multiple reuse and that are at least four mils thick;
- Plastic bags that are solely used to wrap, contain, or package ice cream, meat, fish, poultry, produce, unwrapped bulk food items, or perishable food items in order to avoid damage or contamination;
- Plastic bags used to carry dry cleaning or prescription drugs
- Multiple plastic bags sold in packages and intended for use as garbage, pet waste, or leaf removal bags (although the county now only accepts paper yard waste bags
According to the final guidelines released in September 2021, the plastic bag tax applies to consumers who make in-store, to-go, delivery or curbside pick-up purchases if those purchases are provided in a disposable plastic bag.
The plastic bag tax applies to disposable plastic bags provided at point of sale for in-store, to-go, delivery and curbside pick-up purchases from establishments located within a locality that has adopted the tax.
If you live in a locality in which the plastic bag tax is in effect and you place a home delivery order from a grocery, convenience or drug store in a neighboring city, town or county where the tax is not in effect, you will not pay the plastic bag tax.
Likewise, if you live in a locality without a plastic bag tax, you will need to pay the tax should you place a home delivery order with a grocery, convenience or drug store that is physically located in a locality where the plastic bag tax is in effect.
In other jurisdictions with plastic bag taxes in place, retailers typically rely on the honor system for customers at self-checkout. Many self-checkout kiosks are equipped for customers to electronically indicate if and how many of their own reusable bags they have brought before they begin scanning items.
If I return an item and the plastic bag purchased with that item to the retailer, can I receive a refund on the plastic bag tax incurred at time of purchase?
No, according to final guidelines published by the Virginia Department of Taxation, as the tax is imposed on each disposable plastic bag provided to a customer rather than the items purchased by the customer, refunds of the disposable plastic bag tax should not be allowed in situations where the customer returns the items purchased or the bag to the dealer.
Consumers can invest in reusable shopping bags or choose not to bag their purchase to avoid the plastic bag tax. The bag tax does not extend to paper bags, which can be requested as an alternative at most major retailers. However, reusable shopping bags are the most environmentally friendly option.
Can consumers use their own re-usable bags in lieu of plastic bags, or are stores still prohibiting this due to sanitary/COVID concerns?
With the spread of the Delta variant, cashiers in certain retail locations are once again asking consumers to bag their own groceries if using reusable bags. At this time, we are not aware of any stores prohibiting the use of personal, reusable bags outright.
According to the CDC, the risk of transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19 through contact with contaminated surfaces or objects is generally low. A June 2020 study from the National Institute of Health finds that grocery bags, particularly paper or cloth bags, are likely minor vectors of COVID-19 compared to direct person-to-person contact, aerosolized human fluids, or the handling of contaminated surfaces.
To reduce any risks associated with the use of reusable bags, consumers can consider washing their bags between uses, and should practice frequent handwashing.
Most reusable bag brands can be washed, and in fact should be washed frequently to prevent the spread of germs. Please follow the manufacturer instructions included with your reusable bag.
Reusable bags are a great investment. They generally cost between $2 to $5, (although some brands can be more expensive) and last for several years. However, if cost is a concern, we want to hear from you! Depending on need, one of the ways the revenue from the tax can be allocated is to provide reusable bags to recipients of SNAP and WIC benefits.
Yes, between January 1, 2022 and January 1, 2023, affected retailers will be able to retain two cents for every five cents collected on each disposable bag. Effective January 1, 2023, this discount will decrease to one cent.
The tax will be collected, administered, and enforced by the Virginia Tax Commissioner, in the same manner that the Retail Sales and Use Tax is administered. Following deductions from the retailer discount, and direct costs incurred by the Virginia Department of Taxation, remaining revenue will be distributed to the county at the end of each month.
As an affected retailer, when would I need to remit the plastic bag tax to the Virginia Department of Taxation?
Affected retailers shall report the number of disposable plastic bags and amount of tax for each locality to the Virginia Department of Taxation. The return must be filed and the tax paid by the retailer to the Virginia Department of Taxation on or before the 20th day of each month for the period ending the previous month.
With the ordinance going into effect on January 1, 2022, affected retailers in Fairfax County will need to file and pay the first month’s plastic bag taxes on or before February 20, 2022, with filings and payments due monthly thereafter.
Many municipalities across the United States have chosen to ban plastic bags rather than taxing them. This approach directly addresses the problem of plastic pollution and waste. Fairfax County does not currently have the authority to ban plastic bags altogether and would need to be granted this authority by the state legislature. If you would like to advocate for a plastic bag ban, please contact your representatives in Richmond.
Some grocery stores and retailers in Virginia currently accept plastic bags for recycling. Why do they do so? Are they required to accept them, or is it more of a public service?
Typically, retailers that offer plastic bag recycling for their consumers do so to satisfy corporate environmental initiatives. Outside of their own corporate policies and initiatives, retailers are not required to collect plastic bags. In some cases there may be an added economic incentive for retailers to offer plastic bag recycling for consumers. By selling plastic bags collected at retail locations to large plastic recyclers, retailers may be able to turn a profit, or at the very least, recover some of the original costs of new plastic bags.
Are the plastic bags that are collected by grocery stores and retailers actually recycled or, if not, how are they disposed of?
Many retailers are partnered with or sell collected bags to large plastic recyclers. These recyclers typically melt the bags down into pellets, which are then sold to manufacturers and used to make new products (in some cases, new plastic bags).
Are there ways to recycle or dispose of other “plastic film” bags or products, like dry cleaning bags and plastic bags provided for produce and other products/uses (e.g. to slide chicken and meat packages in, to avoid leakage)?
Yes, but if you are relying on retailer-provided recycling drop-off locations, the acceptance of certain products varies by retailer. To check which materials are accepted by certain retailers, you should consult your local store or use an online search index.
You can also choose to collect plastic bags and other plastic products with third-party collection companies, such as TerraCycle. If you choose this option, costs would apply.
The production and recycling of paper bags is much more water- and energy-intensive than their plastic bag counterparts. However, paper bags have some positive environmental attributes that must be weighed; they are typically much more biodegradable than plastic bags and pose a much lower risk to marine life. In terms of overall energy use, the friendliest bag option is a reusable shopping bag. Making the switch to a reusable bag saves about 53 MW of energy per year, as well as 7 liters of water.