Bring Your Own Bags Now the Norm in Albemarle

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Crozet Market checker Kelly Utt packs a reusable bag for a customer while front end manager Whitney Munson looks on. Manager Jeff Roberts says their decision to give a 5¢ refund for each reusable bag a customer brings has been a great success.

In May 2022, the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a $ 0.05 tax on single use, disposable plastic bags. This decision follows the Virginia General Assembly’s 2020 addition to the Code of Virginia allowing cities and counties to tax plastic bags. The city of Roanoke became the first locality to adopt the tax in 2021, followed by Alexandria City, Arlington County, Fairfax County, Falls Church City, Fredericksburg City, and Loudoun County, which started taxing the bags in 2022. In August 2023, Charlottesville City Council voted to join Albemarle in this effort to reduce plastic waste in our environment, as did Fairfax City.

Beginning on January 1, 2023, the tax has been levied locally on plastic bags given to customers at checkouts in grocery stores, convenience stores, and pharmacies. The ordinance exempts from the tax plastic bags used for produce, meat, ice cream, and prescriptions. Albemarle decided to start with the businesses that would have the most effect; so far, the tax does not apply to restaurants, food banks, farmers markets, or clothing stores. Staples, Lowe’s, and Ulta, for example, are still providing plastic bags for free. Paper bags, which take only a month to decompose, are still untaxed in Virginia.

The plastic bag tax is “in line with the County’s natural resource stewardship and climate action goals—due to the negative impact of disposable plastic bags on the environment,” according to the county’s website.” It takes up to 1,000 years for a plastic bag to degrade in a landfill. Even then, the bags don’t break down completely but instead photo-degrade, becoming microplastics that absorb toxins. These are accumulating in our oceans and in the food chain. Recycling rates for plastic bags are extremely low (estimates range from 1% to 9%), and the bags often end up as litter on roadsides and in waterways They are also harmful to both land and marine wildlife. 

Of course, all residents are free to bring their own reusable grocery bags, which can be used thousands of times, are usually made from recycled plastic, and which most stores sell for $1. Bringing your own bags is an easy solution to some residents’ frustration with the new tax. Cloth bags are the best option, which biodegrade in about 5 months. For those who use plastic bags to line their trash cans, a good substitute might be biodegradable plastic bags (available online), which take only 6 months to a year to biodegrade—as opposed to between 10 and 1,000 years for a disposable plastic bag. The real solution is to reduce our use of plastic overall—but that is easier said than done. 

Crozet Market checker Gwen Adams and Shelby Haigh pack a reusable bag for a customer.

Every grocery store—by far the largest providers of plastic bags—seems to be implementing the bag tax differently. Most still offer paper bags for free—with the notable exception of Wegman’s, which charges 5¢ for both paper and plastic. Some enlightened grocers, including Crozet Market and Whole Foods, give a 5¢ refund for each reusable bag a customer brings with them. “Paper bags cost us substantially more than plastic,” explained Jeff Roberts, manager of Crozet Market. “So, we implemented the reusable bag refund to encourage customers to bring their own bags—that is, to do what the bag tax was meant to do. We lose less money this way than if they use paper bags, plus we do what’s right for our customers.” 

Front end manager Whitney Munson agreed. “The refund has eased the burden on our customers while they get acclimated to bringing their own bags.” Both agree the policy has been a great success. “Customers were confused at first, because they didn’t know it was coming,” Roberts continued. “There were complaints the first few days, but by now everyone is used to it, and some are delighted at the change. Overall, the rollout has gone more smoothly than we expected.” Although some customers request paper bags, many more are bringing their own bags than before the tax was instituted. “It’s about 50/50 between paper and BYOB,” said Roberts, who plans to phase out plastic bags altogether over time. “We haven’t purchased any plastic bags since last year, and when we run out, we don’t plan to buy more.” 

“We’ve seen a substantial increase in customers bringing their own reusable bags,” agreed Jeff Parr, manager of the Crozet Harris Teeter. “Others request paper. We’ve sold very few plastic bags since the tax started. It really has not been a burden for us.” Whole Foods has not used plastic bags for at least 15 years. Trader Joe’s is the standout: they have never offered plastic bags, and now provide compostable produce and flower bags. Although some grocery stores were caught by surprise by this new tax, management was definitely notified, and White Hall District Supervisor Ann Mallek confirmed that “County staff visited businesses to explain the new law.”

Paper bags are still free at the Crozet Harris Teeter, but no refunds are given for reusable bags. Photo: Clover Carroll.

Each store is required to complete a new Virginia state tax form reporting how many plastic bags they’ve sold and remit the tax collected to the state along with their sales tax. “The revenues generated from the plastic bag tax will be utilized to purchase and distribute reusable bags to county recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC),” reported Jacob Sumner, Albemarle County’s Assistant CFO for Policy and Partnerships. “Further, the revenue may be used to fund environmental education and litter clean-up programs.” Mallek is collecting cloth bags with the Earlysville Area Residents’ League (EARL) to share with the local food pantry.

Eight states so far—California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington—have banned single-use plastic bags entirely. Vermont has banned plastic straws and styrofoam containers as well (styrofoam never degrades), and even charges 10¢ for paper bags. Many other states and cities either ban or charge fees for disposable plastic bags, including Boston, Chicago, Boulder, and Washington, DC.

The reduction of plastic waste is a clear benefit to our environment. Albemarle County resident Donna Shaunesey emailed Mallek in mid-February to report that “I’ve been leading stream cleanups at Meadow Creek for at least fifteen years, and last week was the first time I haven’t found plastic grocery bags.” 

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