If plastic bags are banned in Beaufort County, plastic options still exist
Light and easily dispersed by the wind, plastic bags are among the most common litter trashing South Carolina's rivers, beaches, forests and roads.
But finding a way to cut down on plastic bag litter has raised quite a debate.
A bill that would stop local governments from banning plastic bags is sailing through the Legislature as the bag industry ramps up efforts to keep its business going. The anti-ban legislation already has passed the S.C. House and moved easily through a state Senate committee earlier this year. Now, it is expected to come up this week in the Senate.
Bag industry supporters, whose lobbyists were paid more than $100,000 last year to sway votes, are positioned at the State House as the Legislature nears the end to its 2018 session. The American Progressive Bag Alliance says the industry can't afford to lose in its effort to ban local ordinances that would ban the bags.
Millions of plastic bags are handed out every year as customers leave grocery stores, shopping malls or convenience marts. Less likely to tear or fall apart than paper bags, plastic bags enable shoppers to carry more in one hand than they could with paper sacks, industry supporters say.
Matt Seaholm, the plastic bag alliance's director, says environmental groups have fostered unnecessary concerns about plastic sacks at the expense of the industry and shoppers who depend on the handy bags. Banning plastic bags at the local level is the wrong way to attack the litter problem in South Carolina, he said.
""We've seen a growing trend in what we believe is poor public policy at a local level that is driven by activist organizations with an agenda,'' he said. "But that isn't necessarily in the best interest of each community that is addressing this supposed concern.''
Seaholm's group successfully has lobbied in other states to stop local bans on plastic bags, and he said he hopes to have the same success in South Carolina.
The issue is particularly relevant in the Palmetto State because one of the nation's top plastic bag makers is headquartered in Hartsville. Novolex has operations across the nation, providing thousands of jobs, industry boosters say.
Nine local governments have adopted plastic bag ordinances in recent years, including Hilton Head Island, Beaufort County, Folly Beach, Surfside Beach and Isle of Palms. Those governments would not be affected by the anti-ban bill because they adopted laws before a 2018 deadline.
However, other communities that have passed laws more recently, or are considering a bag ban, would be prevented from prohibiting plastic bags, said Emily Cedzo, a program director with the S.C. Coastal Conservation League. Those communities include Mount Pleasant and North Myrtle Beach, she said.
Those fighting the ban on local ordinances say the threat from plastic bags to the landscape and waterways is a real one that needs attention. Local governments, they say, simply are acting on local concerns because the state hasn't done enough.
They say the issue isn't whether South Carolina should have a statewide ban on plastic bags but whether city and county governments should have the right to make that choice locally.
Litter makes the landscape look trashy, and plastic bags are among the easiest types of refuse to get into the environment. They also clog up machines used to recycle other materials, anti-litter groups say.
"It's easy to become litter,'' said Sarah Lyles, director of Palmetto Pride. "The bags get carried in the wind and get caught in the trees. People will throw them in the backs of trucks, but they get carried away.''
Plastic bag litter also can be harmful to marine life, including sea turtles that eat the bags, thinking they are jellyfish. The bags clog up the reptiles' insides and, eventually, sicken or kill them, activists say. In addition, plastic bags that get into waterways can release toxins that also hurt the environment, plastic bag opponents say.
"They are so prevalent in our oceans. They get into our streams,'' said Jacqueline Buck, who heads Keep the Midlands Beautiful. "It's all ending up in these huge masses of litter, plastic and plastic bags.''
Many also see the ban on plastic bag bans as an infringement on the right of cities and counties to make their own decisions. Critics of the anti-ban bill say taking away that right defeats the purpose of local self-governance.
Among those is David Edmond, a grocery shopper who follows issues at the State House. Even though he likes plastic bags for carrying things, Edmond said legislators have no business telling cities whether they can halt the use of plastic bags.
“Those guys at the State House are always doing something like this,'' Edmond said as he entered a Five Points grocery store Monday. "Local governments should have preference when it comes to the local issues. This is what I'd call a power grab by the Legislature.''
State Sen. Sandy Senn, a Charleston Republican, said she'll fight the bill to outlaw local plastic bag ordinances. Laws adopted in recent years by local governments near Charleston are working to curb plastic bag pollution, she said.
Folly Beach, for instance, had a nearly 80-percent drop in plastic bag pollution, according to the S.C. Coastal Conservation League.
"We are seeing firsthand how things have changed,'' Senn said. "It has made a difference.''