Ask an Expert: Why is plastic pollution increasing in Virginia?

While plastic pollution falls in DC and Maryland, Virginia is seeing more - Here’s why.

photo by Ramin Bahrani via  flickr

photo by Ramin Bahrani via flickr


Want a mind boggling piece of trivia? Humans use 500 billion plastic bags every year. That’s more than a million bags every minute.

It’s no secret that our addiction to disposable bags and one-time-use plastics is overwhelming our waterways, both locally and globally. It’s polluting our drinking water and threatening wildlife.

The good news is that the tide may finally be turning on plastic pollution. Growing public support for plastic bag fees, foam bans, and efforts to eliminate plastic straws are cutting down on local waste that enters the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, and eventually flows downstream to the Chesapeake Bay.

DC and Maryland are leading the way for a plastic-free future

Earlier this year, DC became the second major city in the US (or was it the first?) to ban plastic straws. The Anacostia River watershed was one of the first in the nation to go Styrofoam free, and a number of local municipalities in Maryland and the District long ago enacted fees to curb the use of disposable plastic bags.

Now, Maryland is set to become the first state in the country to ban polystyrene food containers and cups! The bill passed both chambers of the state legislator and is expected to be signed by the Governor later this spring.

Local policies are truly having a positive impact on the Potomac River:

Northern Virginia is lagging behind in efforts to curb plastic pollution

With so much local momentum around combating the plastic pollution problem, you might be surprised to learn that Northern Virginia is actually lagging behind.

There are no plastic fees or bans in Arlington, Alexandria, or Fairfax County, and it’s showing. While the number of plastic bags found at DC cleanups is dropping, bags found in Virginia are rising.

Plastic Bags Per Cleanup Site

Source: Data provided by the Alice Ferguson Foundation,

What’s holding Virginia back?

Curbing plastics through local bans is uniquely difficult in Virginia thanks in large measure to a rule that favors the state’s authority.

As Potomac Conservancy’s Policy Director, Caitlin Wall explains, “Virginia is what’s known as a Dillon Rule state, meaning most rights are reserved for the state government. Local governments are seen as extensions of the state. So when it comes to laws having to do with taxation or finances, unless a power is expressly granted by the state government, counties and cities can’t enact a law that would grant them more authority.

Authority to, say, limit plastic bags or impose extra taxes or fees. If they do, the state could modify or revoke the law.

In comparison, Maryland is more of a Home Rule state, which grants more autonomy and authority to local governments. Counties and cities have more range to govern themselves separately, and it’s not necessary for the entire state legislature to agree on legislation that may only be a priority for certain areas.

What’s the latest?

There have been a number of bills put forth in the Virginia state legislature over the years to grant municipalities the authority to enact bag fees and plastic bans, but so far none have passed.

Earlier this year, Jen Cole, Executive Director of Clean Fairfax, thought it unlikely a bill giving localities authority to enact plastic bans or fees would pass in the state legislature this year. And unfortunately, she was right.

In the 2019 legislative session, state representatives declined to approve bills that would have allowed local plastic fees, impact studies, and local bans of single-use plastics. Check out Litter Free Virginia’s legislation tracker for a full list of proposed bills.

But there’s reason to be optimistic about the future.

“I do think every year we get closer, and we get more converts,” explained Jen Cole, Executive Director of Clean Fairfax. “It used to be there were just one or two bills related to plastics, and now there are five or six every year.”

What can you do to help? Act Local!

Volunteer and help protect the Potomac River


Get your hands dirty for clean water with Team Potomac.

Join us at our next cleanup and remove harmful plastic litter at a local park along the Potomac River. It’s a great way to get outdoors, have fun with your friends, and make a difference in the fight for clean water. Volunteers of all ages are welcome!

Find an upcoming volunteer event at


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