South Carolina’s fight over the use of plastic bags spilled into a Legislative hearing Wednesday, foreshadowing what is expected to be a protracted debate this year over litter, water pollution and the impact on businesses if the sacks are banned.
Local government officials and small business representatives clashed during a hearing over a legislative proposal to prevent counties and cities from banning plastic bags.
State Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said both sides of the plastic-bag issue must be willing to compromise.
“I’m willing to talk. I’m willing to listen ... but I need other people to do that as well,’’ Massey said. “This is going to have to be a good-faith effort on both sides ... to move forward. If we don’t do that, then it’s going to turn bloody.’’
S.C. legislators have revived efforts this year to keep cities and counties from banning plastic bags. But critics say the decision whether to ban plastic bags should be left to local governments.
Thirteen cities and counties, most in coastal South Carolina, have adopted ordinances against the use of plastic bags. Most recently, the town of Arcadia Lakes, near Columbia, enacted its own bag ban.
If a bill passes the Legislature, it would stop new local bag bans and nullify local bans that already have been adopted. The state Senate committee holding Wednesday’s hearing did not vote on the bill to prohibit local bag bans. It plans to hold another meeting.
At Wednesday’s hearing, S.C. Retail Association members said the state needs to block local governments from banning plastic bags. Local bans on plastic bags can cost small stores big money, officials said. It is far cheaper to buy plastic bags for customers than paper bags, they added.
Switching to paper bags could threaten the existence of country stores that provide a service to their communities, said Philip Payment, president of Floco Foods Inc.
““Small rural locations might be pressured to close, which would create a food desert,’’ said Payment, whose company oversees 78 stores, many of them in rural areas.
Representatives of the S.C. Association of Counties and Beaufort County Councilman Paul Sommerville spoke against the proposed prohibition on local bans.
Counties should have the right to protect the environment, particularly in places like Beaufort, with its thriving tourism sector, they said. Thin plastic bags blowing across the landscape hurt tourism, Sommerville said. Beaufort County’s plastic bag ban affects only the thinnest bags, which he said are the biggest problem.
“We are drowning in trash,’’ he said, adding the county’s ordinance “is just a small step toward solving that problem.’’
Environmentalists also are concerned that when plastic bags break down, they leave tiny particles — called microplastics — that can get into rivers and drinking water. A new report by researchers at The Citadel found microplastics in Columbia-area rivers, as well as traces in the city’s drinking water.
Sommerville said microplastics are a concern in Beaufort, as well.
The effort to stop local bag bans has been a hot one because many people rely on the bags to carry groceries home from the store.
The push to pass a state law against local bag bans is being fueled by bag maker Novolex and packaging company Sonoco, both of Hartsville. Novolex and Sonoco have donated more than $50,000 since 2015 to candidates for office.
The American Progressive Bag Alliance, an industry trade group, also has spent $88,000 lobbying lawmakers to prevent local plastic bag bans over the past two years, The State reported this month.
Nationally, the plastic bag industry has led similar efforts in other states. It has been pushing a S.C. bill for at least three years. The S.C. bill died last year, but it was reintroduced in January by state Sens. Scott Talley and Wes Climer, both Upstate Republicans.