Is Charleston next in line to take a stand on plastic bags? 

Bags and Bans

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Let's consider the plastic bag. Over recent years, there's been a growing debate across the country regarding the impact of these everyday conveniences. On one side, you have those who argue that plastic bags pollute our cities, waste resources, and harm wildlife. On the other side, you have the counter argument: Plastic bags are efficient, affordable, and have less of an impact on the environment than is commonly reported.

As citizens weigh the pros and cons, many state and local governments have considered introducing additional fees or taxes for non-recyclable plastic bags, while some have banned their distribution altogether. Just over a year ago, the Isle of Palms became the first municipality in South Carolina to put in place a ban on single-use plastic bags. Passing by a unanimous vote from City Council, the ordinance officially went into effect at the start of this year, but by that time most businesses on the island had already made the transition away from plastic. After six months, Isle of Palms Mayor Dick Cronin says he hasn't heard any complaints from island residents and has noticed a positive change himself.

"I could sit in my home office and see a plastic bag blowing by on the street. I don't see that anymore on the island," says Cronin. "Businesses adapted promptly, and residents and visitors have embraced it as well."

Since Isle of Palms' ban passed, there's been consideration of whether a similar initiative would be right for Charleston and other neighboring communities. A local coalition of government, business, and citizen-led organizations have joined together to determine the best way to gauge residents' opinions on plastic bag use and figure out if some form of strategy aimed at managing plastic use might be appealing to the people of Charleston. This group includes representatives from city and county agencies, the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, MUSC, the South Carolina Aquarium, as well as environmental organizations such as the Coastal Conservation League.

As a side note, I want to pass on a little message from Charleston County's Recycling Management Department: Do not put plastic bags in with the rest of your recycling. According to Christina Moskos, the county's recycling coordinator, plastic bags are one of the main recycling contaminants. When disposed of incorrectly, these bags get tangled in processing equipment and cause shutdowns — it's a mess. Chances are you can easily drop your bags off at your nearest grocery store to be recycled.

Paper or Plastic

So what do you need to know about plastic bags and what would new restrictions mean for Charleston? Well, let's start by looking at the economic side of the issue.

After the ban on the Isle of Palms took hold, state Reps. Eric Bedingfield and Jay Lucas introduced an unsuccessful bill aimed at preventing local governments from implementing bans and fees related to plastic bags. Novolex, a major employer in the plastic bag industry, has a plant in Lucas' district that contributes more than $34 million to the state's economy, according to the American Progressive Bag Alliance. But how might a ban affect retailers who rely on plastic bags every day?

A 2015 study by researchers at UC Berkeley found that single-use plastic bags cost retailers about 3 cents a piece, compared to paper bags which cost from 7 to 10 cents depending on size and whether they include handles. Researchers found that both bans and fees applied to plastic bag use did lead to an increase in reusable bags, but plastic bag bans also led to a significant increase in the amount of paper bags used. This is a problem because when compared to single-use paper bags, plastic bags are cleaner and more efficient to manufacture, require less energy to recycle, and are cheaper to ship due to their low weight.

But, while plastic is a more affordable option for businesses and consumers, the cost to cities for litter control initiatives aimed at cleaning up plastic bags is estimated to be between 3-8 cents per bag. So really all single-use bags — be they paper or plastic — come with their own set of expenses. The only difference is whether these costs fall more heavily on municipalities — as is the case with plastic — or are spread out to businesses, consumers, and governments.

Environment or Economy

As a coastal city, Charleston must take special consideration of how residents affect ocean life. Environmentalist groups argue that plastic bags pose a specific threat to sea turtles who can mistake floating bags for a potential food source — jellyfish. In addition, as plastics slowly break down into smaller particles, they enter into the food chain after being consumed by small sea creatures.

A 2016 study from the journal of Marine Policy examined the expected impact of marine pollutants on ocean life. When considering the risk of entanglement and ingestion by wildlife, the marine experts surveyed reported that discarded fishing gear poses the greatest ecological threat, but plastic bags ranked close behind due to the risk to seabirds, turtles, and sea mammals. According to the study, "compared to most other consumer plastic items, plastic bags pose one of the greatest impacts to ocean life and thus, from an environmental impact perspective, plastic bags warrant the specific attention they have received from governments and advocates to address their use."

When considering what this could mean for Charleston, it becomes all the more important to measure public input on any possible plastic bag restrictions. It's not easy to weigh economic concerns with environmental causes, but it looks like that might be the very decision residents and officials are forced to make.

"Why would we as a coastal region not want to take action to protect the coast? Our livelihood depends upon this coast. It's what makes Charleston," says City Councilman Peter Shahid, who has expressed a willingness to introduce plastic bag regulations for the city. "Folks walk out of the grocery store with a paper bag or a canvas bag. It's recyclable. It's reusable. It's one less bag that can somehow make its way into the rivers and creeks. It's a simple thing to do. I think there will be some push-back from folks who think we're overreaching, but overall, I'm supportive of it."

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