Virginia Beach environmental group seeking reusable grocery bags to replace single-use plastic bags

VIRGINIA BEACH — After the Virginia Beach City Council punted on a plastic bag tax last year, Lynnhaven River Now went to work to help connect people in need with reusable grocery bags.

“We’ve been for a long time working on how to reduce single use plastics,” said Karen Forget, executive director of the environmental group based in Virginia Beach.

State law allows municipalities to charge a 5-cent fee for each disposable plastic bag at grocery stores, convenience stores and pharmacies. Retailers can keep 1 cent of the fee. The other 4 cents, collected by the Department of Taxation, must be spent on environmental cleanup, educational programs aimed at reducing pollution, mitigating pollution and litter or providing reusable bags to recipients of SNAP and WIC benefits.

At least 10 Virginia localities have implemented the tax, including Fairfax County, Alexandria and Charlottesville. No Hampton Roads municipalities have adopted the 5-cent bag fee.

Lynnhaven River Now and other area environmental advocates lobbied the city to pass a law for a plastic bag fee last year but didn’t have enough votes in support. The city’s Human Rights Commission at the time raised concerns about how a plastic bag fee would affect low-income families.

Since then, the group decided to collect reusable bags and distribute them to people in need.

“We surmised that we’re not alone in having this glut of reusable bags,” said Forget. “I had just done a whole big purge. I had three to four times the number that I ever need.”

The organization created a collection bin for their office off Holland Road and placed more in most of the city’s recreation centers and a few schools. On occasion, private companies that have extras leftover from conventions donate boxes of bags.

The bags are distributed at area food pantry programs. Over the last year, the organization has collected and redistributed approximately 8,000 reusable bags.

The effort picked up interest in other places, too. Students in a high school sewing class and participants at a senior center have made and donated reusable bags.

“It’s just really taken off in a way we didn’t expect,” Forget said.

Lynnhaven River Now conducts cleanups throughout the city, and plastic bags are among one of the biggest litter culprits.

“They clog up our storm drain pipes; they’re deadly to wildlife; they’re just a bad product, and it’s just so easy for us to not use them,” Forget said. “It just takes a little while of changing your habits and remembering to bring your bag.”

Forget says local environmentalists haven’t given up on the push for a plastic bag fee in Virginia Beach and have been trying to persuade newer council members to get on board.

“I think we’re getting closer to having some consensus on City Council,” she said.

Stacy Parker, 757-222-5125, stacy.parker@pilotonline.com