After one year, D.C.’s nickel tax on plastic bags appears to have dramatically lowered bag use, reduced trash in the Anacostia, and not ticked people off too much. Now similar legislation is in the pipeline in Virginia, but the debate is different. Farming issues loom larger than water pollution, and, as one county official put it, “Tax is not a word many people say out loud in Virginia when it comes to legislation.” Already bag tax opponents have asked why tax bags when you can recycle them? Isle of Wight County in southern Virginia provides a convenient case study for the effects of plastic bag recycling programs; the county received a $28,000 grant from the state to reduce plastic bag trash in 2009. The List questioned folks about what has happened in the county since.
Why did Isle of Wight County get a grant for plastic bag recycling?
The county is home to lots of cotton farms, and it turns out that plastic bags do nasty things to cotton farms. Word spread from farmers to local and state officials until eventually a proposal for a plastic bag ban was brought to Richmond. The legislation didn’t get far, but as a result, a coalition formed to study the issue and the Isle Be Green recycling initiative was born.
What did the county do to promote recycling plastic bags?
County public information officer Don Robertson ticks off the initiatives: partnership with the schools, including a bag collecting contest; setting up recycling receptacles at shopping centers; setting up a county disposal site; and promoting reusable bags.
Was the program successful?
Steve Coe, a specialist in the state’s Dept. of Environmental Quality, says it’s hard to quantify. “Because of the timing of the grant funding,” he explains, county officials “were unable to say yes, this made a big improvement. … There’s really been no long-term evaluation of the direct impact.” Neither the DEQ nor the EPA keeps bag use or recycling figures for the state.
What parts of the program worked?
Rachel Chieppa, a rural economic development manager for the county, points to the schools. Isle of Wight County elementary school kids collected more than 251,000 plastic bags from September through the first week in January this year. Total collection efforts from August 2009 to April 2010 netted more than 900,000 plastic bags.
What did not work?
Litter surveys were conducted before, during, and after the initiative launched to track plastic bag trash within key areas of the county. Despite the recycling efforts, the numbers scarcely improved. (They actually increased slightly on the second survey.) Chieppa calls the results “very shocking.” “We would have thought it would have gone down significantly,” she says. “You would have thought there wouldn’t have been a single bag left in the county.” But bags remain.
Why did recycling efforts not have the expected effect?
Chieppa and State Sen. Fred Quayle, who originally proposed the bag ban legislation, place some blame on the trucking industry. “Quite frankly, where they’re coming from is these trash trucks,” says Quayle. “They’re not covered properly.” Chieppa says there was initial local support for pushing for stricter tarping regulations and increased ticketing, but says it didn’t go anywhere. “I think there was a general sense that we couldn’t fight that,” she says. “It’s such a big industry.”
Has the situation for farmers improved?
Tom Wright, the Board of County Supervisors member who originally brought the plastic bag issue to the board, says not particularly. “There’s still as many bags in the fields,” he says. “You can go in any area where there’s farmland … and you can see plastic bags.” Quayle agrees that bags are still a problem in the county but says he has “not heard a great deal in the last year” from farmers on the issue. Local farmer Brian Carroll also says he has dealt with fewer plastic bags on his 2,800 acres of farmland.
Did the recycling efforts save the county money?
Chieppa says the county saved $1,041 in waste disposal fees and that the county has 9,000 bales of plastic waiting to be sold. “Granted, we won’t make money on it because it cost us more in manpower to collect them,” she concedes.
Has the county lost interest in a ban?
“I’m still against plastic bags,” says Wright, though he praises the “superb” efforts of Chieppa and others in promoting recycling. “I’m still in favor of banning them.” Wright doesn’t believe the political will for a ban has disappeared—Quayle says he’d consider it again—but the county is trying to strike a balance between satisfying the retail community (which opposes a ban) and keeping the community clean. Says Robertson: “I think for the most part, the folks who have an interest in this issue have taken more of a middle-of-the-road position, and what we’re doing appears to be working. It’s not a perfect solution.”
What about a tax on bags?
Though Chieppa is proud of the county’s recycling efforts, she’s open to the idea of a tax. “Sometimes you have to legislate common sense,” she says. “And the way you have to make people change sometimes is through their pocketbook. The D.C. bag tax seems to be working.” Quayle says he’d consider voting for a tax. “If [my constituents] feel like there’s still a major problem and taxing bags is a way to solve it,” he says, “I’d consider it.” One of his constituents, farmer Carroll, shares his feelings on the matter: “Tax? I don’t like a tax on anything.”