Lexington County could soon join other SC counties in banning plastic bags

Lexington County could join 17 other counties and municipalities in South Carolina in banning single-use plastic bags.

The county is in the early stages of discussing a ban on single-use plastic bags, which are very thin, non-recyclable bags like those found at grocery stores. Those bags are one of the biggest pollutants of roadways, inland waterways and oceans because they do not biodegrade. And single-use plastic bags are most often nonessential “convenience” items used, on average, for 12 minutes and then thrown away, according to Caroline Bradner of the Coastal Conservation League.

When properly discarded, super-thin plastic bags clog recycling machines or wind up at landfills, where some bags will be carried away by wind and others will disintegrate over the course of some 20 generations, scientists estimate. When improperly disposed of, single-use plastic bags can end up as litter on roads, as tiny particles in drinking water, obstructions in storm drains, and enormous trash rafts in the middle of the ocean.

Municipal governments and counties throughout the state and the country have stepped up to fight pollution and litter by limiting the use and distribution of single-use plastic bags, Styrofoam containers, plastic straws and other non-recyclable items.

Though the bans began in 2015 along the South Carolina coastline, where tourists and turtles intermingle, similar ordinances have gained steam in recent years in non-coastal areas. As of June 25, various bans were approved in:

Arcadia Lakes (effective March 2020), Charleston (effective Jan. 1, 2020), Charleston County (effective August 2019 in unincorporated parts of the county), Folly Beach, Beaufort, Bluffton, Port Royal, Hilton Head, Mount Pleasant, Isle of Palms, James Island (effective January 2020), Surfside Beach, Sullivan’s Island, Camden (effective Jan. 1, 2020), Edisto Beach (effective Jan. 1, 2020), North Myrtle Beach (effective Jan. 1, 2021) and Kiawah Island (effective Sept. 8).

Read more about each of those bans here.

In places where single-use plastic bags are banned or taxed (5 to 10 cents per bag sometimes), grocers, retailers and residents can use paper bags or thicker, washable plastic bags that can be reused up to 125 times. The optimal outcome, however, is for customers to use their own reusable bags, such as those made of cloth, Bradner said. The bring-your-own-bag approach reduces costs for business owners and eliminates unnecessary use of plastic and paper, she said.

Lexington County Council member Beth Carrigg said her constituents would likely rally behind “anything that reduces litter, period” — and that includes those in the business community, which could be most greatly affected by a ban.

“Most businesses want to be environmentally friendly as well, as long as it’s cost-effective for them,” she said.

Ultimately, trashed roads and waterways can equal decreased property values, fewer people moving to Lexington County and less business, she said.

Carrigg, who represents Seven Oaks and part of Irmo, said she has seen how a ban on single-use plastics can change a neighborhood. She owns a vacation home in Folly Beach, where a ban was introduced in October 2016.

And though Folly Beach has a different personality than Lexington County (“People are very much attuned to nature,” Carrigg said of Folly), beaches and streets have less litter and residents are more aware of their impact on the environment after the new law.

“I really think that there has to be personal accountability,” she said.

Folly Beach litter crews saw an 80% reduction in the number of single-use plastic bags found during cleanups after the ban was passed, according to Bradner.

While an effort to curb single-use plastic bags in Lexington County is still in an embryonic stage — the council first discussed the possibility of an ordinance when Bradner spoke at a June 11 committee meeting — county officials have stressed over litter for years.

In June 2017, the county started a part-time “litter crew” through its department of solid waste management to clean up roadways. In 2018, the litter crew collected 4,121 bagfuls, or nearly 15 tons, of litter from state and county roads, according to data from Lexington County.

The county also contracts with the Babcock Center, a nonprofit that helps those with disabilities, to run nine of the county’s 11 collection and recycling stations. The center periodically sends crews to pick up litter inside and around the county’s collection and recycling centers. The Babcock crews are paid for their work, according to David Eger, director of Lexington County Solid Waste Management.

Lexington County has also crafted awareness campaigns and educational materials with the help of Palmetto Pride and Keep the Midlands Beautiful, two anti-litter organizations. That and more was on the local level, but it’s often still not enough.

Bradner said that’s part of why anti-plastic bag ordinances have become more common.

“Municipalities are looking at ordinances and bans because they have tried and local groups have tried” other efforts to curb litter. “There is no practical way to capture all of this waste and so [enacting an ordinance] does make sense.”

Usually, when municipal or county governments discuss banning certain products businesses count on, officials will conduct extensive outreach in the community, Bradner said. Most local governments will add leniency periods, ranging from a couple of months to a couple of years, during which residents and businesses can conform to the new law without penalty, she said.

Lexington County Council will most likely revisit the conversation of banning plastic bags toward the end of the summer, according to Carrigg. However, if the county waits until the state Legislature is back in session in January, its efforts might by stymied.

Some lawmakers, backed by big business dollars and pressure from lobbyists, have tried to push for restrictions on what local governments can ban, including plastic bags.

The American Progressive Bag Alliance has spent about $88,000 on lobbying over the past two years to help protect the plastic bag industry from regulation in South Carolina, according to public filings. Novolex, a South Carolina-based plastic bag maker, and Sonoco Products Co., a packaging company also based in-state, have both donated to S.C. candidates and political committees, ethics filings show.

The proposal to place a ban on bans is expected to be picked up again in the State House next year.

Isabella Cueto is a bilingual multimedia journalist covering Lexington County, one of the fastest-growing areas of South Carolina. She previously worked as a reporter for the Medill Justice Project and WLRN, South Florida’s NPR station. She is a graduate of the University of Miami, where she studied journalism and theatre arts.