Alarmed by a plastic-bag bill sailing through the S.C. House, environmentalists urged state senators Wednesday to let cities and counties continue to decide whether to ban the handy grocery sacks.
Supporters of the plastic-bag industry are trying to prevent local governments from prohibiting the bags, which boosters say support jobs and provide a convenient way to carry groceries and other items. The supporters back a House bill that would eliminate local bans on plastic bags.
But conservationists say the bags are littering the landscape, polluting the ocean and killing rare sea turtles — and the Senate needs to remember that when it comes time for a vote.
“Plastic pollution is everywhere,’’ conservationist Katie Zimmerman told senators during an annual briefing about legislative priorities for environmental groups. “It threatens water quality, human health, wildlife (and) it’s unsightly.’’
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Sea turtles often eat plastic bags floating in the ocean, thinking they are jellyfish. The bags then can clog the animals’ digestive tracts and kill them.
Zimmerman, a program director with the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, said more than 200 sea turtles treated for injuries or illnesses at the state aquarium since 2000 have had plastic in their systems. One 900-pound leatherback turtle was found dead at Wadmalaw Island last year with a ball of plastic in its gut, she said.
“I’m here to ask you all that, if the House bill does come to the Senate, that you oppose it and protect the rights of municipalities,’’ Zimmerman said.
A bill preventing counties and cities from adopting plastic-bag bans is moving quickly in the House. The bill, similar to one pushed in many states by the bag industry, won approval Wednesday afternoon from a House committee and was sent to the full House for debate as early as next week. House members who have pushed for the bill include Rep. Eric Bedingfield, a Greenville Republican who has said the industry provides jobs and people should have the freedom to use plastic bags if they want.
So far, Folly Beach and the Isle of Palms have adopted local ordinances restricting the use of plastic bags, while the city of Charleston has discussed it. Many cities adopting plastic-bag ordinances across the country have made it illegal for stores to distribute the bags, meaning people must use paper or bring their own bags.
Headquartered in Hartsville, Novolex is a major company in the plastic-bag industry nationally. The company says it employs more than 7,000 people at 49 North American sites. It markets a variety of products, including plastic bags like those used by shoppers in grocery stores.
Company officials want the state to stop local governments from adopting plastic-bag bans because Novolex says that would be confusing and potentially costly. The company, which says uniform state standards are preferred, says plastic sacks are not a major source of litter and 90 percent of customers reuse the bags.
Where “there is no state-level uniformity of packaging regulation, companies like Novolex could be faced with having to develop city-specific product lines,’’ the company said in a recent letter to the House Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee.
If the bill continues its path through the House, the Senate could receive the bill for consideration in a matter of weeks. Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, said he opposes the bill and does not think it would pass the Senate. But he said that could depend on which industry groups support it and how hard they push to approve the bill.
During Wednesday’s briefing, environmentalists also spoke in favor of bills to keep the state Conservation Bank operating another 10 years, tighten the state’s dam safety law and improve state solar energy laws. But they spoke against a bill that would make it easier to develop property before permit disputes are decided.