By Stephen D’Alessio, EcoAction Arlington Volunteer
The COVID-19 crisis has thrown environmentalist concerns completely off. The pandemic has drastically altered how governments at national and local levels are ordering their priorities as they rush to deal with the economic and health impacts of the disease. As a result, environmentalists are tackling older issues in a vastly different context. One perennial environmental issue impacted by the COVID crisis is the question of how to end plastic bag pollution. Environmentalist concern over plastic pollution goes back as far as the 1960s when early anti-littering campaigns emerged. In recent years, state and local governments have successfully passed measures to ban or tax certain commonly disposed plastic containers, such as plastic bags. However, in the current crisis, states are reconsidering the wisdom of plastic bag taxes and bans in light of their supposedly detrimental economic effects and the impact that reusable bags have on the spread of the disease. This wave of change has left communities still hoping to pass these ordinances, such as my home of Arlington, Virginia, at a crossroads. Within this confusing new situation, local groups, such as EcoAction Arlington, are filling a very important leadership role.
The COVID crisis has led to a vast shifting of political priorities that is putting new plastic bag taxes and bans in jeopardy. Many lawmakers are concerned that the economic crisis set in motion by the pandemic will make implementing the tax harmful to local economies. For example, in Philadelphia, Mayor Jim Kenney delayed the start date of a plastic ban tax set to go into effect in July of 2020 because of its supposed harmful impacts on the local economy. Similarly, the city of Worcester, Massachusetts postponed the start of its plastic bag ban by 90 days to give businesses hurting as a result of the COVID crisis more time to adapt to the altered circumstances. The even more pressing concern is the idea that the reusable bags carry the disease more so than plastic bags, a notion that has been soundly refuted by scientific experts. For example, the New York State Department of Conservation delayed implementation of its plastic bag ban after local politicians began arguing that reusable bags could cause more people to get sick. In California, Governor Gavin Newsom’s executive order pushing back the start of the local plastic bag ban specifically referenced the possibility that reusable bags could cause the spread of COVID-19.
This trend has left Arlington, Virginia in a unique struggle in determining how to proceed, forcing activist groups to lead the fight to pass a plastic bag tax. Amid the pandemic, the state legislature debated SB11, a bill that would allow localities to impose a 5-cent tax on plastic bags. The bill managed to move past both houses of the Virginia state legislature but industry voices began to warn that the bill could potentially worsen the spread of the disease. For example, the Virginia Food Industry Association urged Virginia Governor Ralph Northam to veto the bill, arguing that its passage would increase the chances of shoppers becoming sick. Despite this pressure, Governor Northam eventually signed the bill into law. The fight now continues at a local level. So far, no localities in Virginia have elected to bring forward a plastic bag tax as allowed by the state legislation. In Arlington, I support a local activist organization known as EcoAction Arlington that is compiling petition signatures to put pressure on the Arlington County Board to take action to pass the tax. Our group understands the widespread misconceptions surrounding the impact that reusable bags have on the COVID-19 crisis created by many industry groups during the passage of SB11. As a result, we provide information on our website specifically addressing these concerns, noting that there is no evidence that reusable bags carry coronavirus more easily than plastic bags. We hope to have over 1000 votes for this petition by November of this year. Passing this tax would be very exciting, as we could start a trend encouraging other municipalities to pass the same ordinance in their communities.
The modern environmentalist movement has dealt with many changing circumstances over the years. In the background of different political movements and economic climates, environmentalists continue pushing on. While the coronavirus crisis is unique in the size and the scope of the issue, activists within the movement are enduring. I look forward to continuing to work with EcoAction Arlington on this plastic bag tax push, and I urge all of my fellow Arlingtonians to sign our petition.