One of the rites of spring in Mount Vernon is our annual creek and community clean-ups. It is always immensely gratifying to remove bags and bags of trash from our public spaces and equally, to be a part of such a large volunteer effort. However, it can also be depressing to realize that so much litter—from cigarette butts to mattresses, plastic bags to plastic toys, and so much more—continues to make its way into our streams and parks. What can we do? What are we doing in the General Assembly to combat this constant attack on our environment that affects our communities and often circumvents conveniently located trash containers? Every day we see signs of littering everywhere.
Most of us understand that people should not litter and yet it is difficult to get a consensus on how to deal with it. In Mount Vernon and throughout the Commonwealth, there is a strong grassroots effort to attack the problem both legislatively and by massive volunteer clean-ups. This past Saturday, Sen. Scott Surovell and I held our annual creek clean-up at a number of sites on the west side of Richmond Highway along Little Hunting Creek. We collected reams of trash, including grocery carts, tires, and bags and bags of plastic items — trash that would otherwise make its way out to the Potomac River to flow into our oceans and beyond to pollute our planet forever.
In April, 82 volunteers picked up 126 bags of trash, 8 tires, and nearly 2,000 pounds of bulk trash along the creek at ten different sites. In fact, this was the 20th annual cleanup organized by the Friends of Little Hunting Creek and sponsored by the Alice Ferguson Foundation. The good news is that the marsh is cleaner this year than in previous years due in part to the County’s new Operation Stream Shield program, and the trash trap installed behind Mount Vernon Plaza that targets some of the worst trash areas. A big shout out to all of the volunteers from Gum Springs, River Farms, Riverside Estates, Stratford Landing, Wessynton, and Williamsburg Manor, and the leadership of Betsy Martin, President of the Friends of Little Hunting Creek. Thank you to all of you that participated, including the many children and young people. You can read more about that tremendous effort in an April edition of this newspaper.
Legislatively, the General Assembly passed a bipartisan supported law introduced by Delegate Jim Edmunds (Republican from Halifax), that will double the initial fine from $250 to $500 for littering with a maximum fine for repeat offenders at $2,500 and a requirement for community service with a conviction spending ten hours picking up roadside litter. That law will go into effect on July 1st. The goal is not to penalize people but to stop littering by sending a strong message that it is a serious offense to toss trash along the roadside or into other people’s yards.
On May 1st, my bill to impose a $100 penalty for those businesses that pay the $20 litter tax per establishment late or not at all (that also was increased from the decades-long $10 fee this May 1st) goes into effect for businesses that opened on or before Jan. 1, 2020, but paid after the May 2, 2020 due date. The fine also includes a late payment equal to 100% of the tax due plus accrued interest. For the most part, the industry was supportive of this law since many businesses are not in compliance with the litter tax, meaning there are hundreds of thousands of fewer dollars going into local litter control efforts, including purchasing trash traps on creeks and educational programs, for example. In addition, continuing to allow businesses to be delinquent with their litter tax with little punishment was unfair to all of the law-abiding Virginia businesses that diligently pay their annual litter tax. There is an additional litter tax of $30 per business establishment for manufacturers, wholesalers, distributors, and/or retailers of groceries, soft drinks, carbonated water, and beer beverages. If you have questions about the litter tax or registering your business with Virginia Tax, contact their customer service helpline at 804-367-8037.
More importantly, a bill I introduced a few years ago and this year we passed into law (but it won’t go into effect until July 1, 2023, for restaurants and by 2025 for all food vendors) prohibits the use of single-use expanded polystyrene food containers, also known as styrofoam — a particularly difficult pollutant to remove from the environment as it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces.
And, Senator Adam Ebbin’s introduced bill that authorizes any locality to impose a tax of five cents per bag on disposable plastic bags by retailers has been the law since the beginning of this year. This law allows the retailer to retain one penny of the five-cent tax for their costs. At least a couple of counties are looking into adopting such an ordinance.
The very best way for us to get rid of litter is to change our buying habits and try to recycle waste and reuse those items too many of us throw away. We are consuming an ever-increasing level of natural resources which is contributing to global climate change, threatening our environment, and disposing of plastic that makes its way to the ocean, which harms marine life and creates hardship for not just those who rely on the ocean for their food and livelihoods, but for all of us who are ingesting food from the seas and lakes, much of which includes nanoparticles of plastic. Replacing plastic water bottles with reusable bottles and thermos for coffee or tea, disposable utensils for reusable ones, metal or paper straws, paper or cloth towels for dish towels and replace those plastic grocery bags with reusable canvas bags, to name a few, go a long way to reducing waste and the amount of nonbiodegradable material in our landfills and oceans. We need to return to the days of reusable items and rethink ways to reduce the need for single-use items, especially our plastic intake.