Hard-fought plastics bans roll out across Charleston area 

Plastic Problems

click to enlarge Before Charleston’s ban took effect, Burbage’s grocery on Broad Street encouraged customers to carry their reusable bags with little success

Ruta Smith

Before Charleston’s ban took effect, Burbage’s grocery on Broad Street encouraged customers to carry their reusable bags with little success

In the wake of smaller-scale ordinances throughout the area, Charleston County began talks of a county-wide ban on single-use plastics in late 2018. To mitigate the ecological damage of plastic pollution and consolidate the laws across local areas, the ordinance was adopted in March 2019 and set to take effect with the new year.

When communities like Isle of Palms started looking into small-scale plastic bans and ordinances, Caroline Bradner, the land, water, and wildlife project manager for the Coastal Conservation League (CCL), says the group stepped in to help the proposals along.

"We feel that it's just incredibly important that, from the beginning, all of those who will be affected are engaged especially to make it successful and make the difference that we all want to see — a shift in the mindset of our residents here and visitors alike," she says.

But in order to get to that point, there first has to be a shift in behavior, in this case one enforced by law. Business and restaurant owners especially are undertaking a considerable change, as the ordinance explicitly targets plastic grocery bags, styrofoam food containers and cups, and plastic straws in favor of recyclable alternatives.

Members of communities across the county are no strangers to these changes. According to the CCL, Isle of Palms passed the first single-use plastic bag ban in our state in 2015. Their ban was community-led and blazed a trail for future plastics ordinances in Mt. Pleasant and Folly Beach.

Charleston's single-use plastic ban took effect on Jan. 1, and some remain concerned that outlawing specific uses for plastic bags and containers won't make a big enough difference in the environment for the inconvenience claimed by some in the community.

"I was in the industry when environmentalists were hell-bent on stopping the use of paper bags," says Lisa Bowen, owner of Burbage's Self Service Grocery on Broad Street. "Save the spotted owl — it was all about the spotted owl 35 years ago, and now it's about the sea turtle. I do get frustrated that a small group of people are impacting these big decisions that do really affect people. It affects the elderly. It affects poor people. It's a real thing. And what gets me is how unreal of an impact this is going to have."

Those in favor of the ordinances point to growing piles of plastic in the harbor and other waterways. In Charleston specifically, many see that alone as a powerful argument.

"So many people are depending on the water," Bradner says. "You have oystermen and women who are wanting to make sure the oysters are clean, and now that means microplastics."

Microplastics, tiny pieces of plastic less than 5 mm in size, break down from larger pieces or smaller materials and items used in everyday life. Microplastics can be small enough to passively enter the water's food cycles, and in turn, our bodies.

A 2014 Citadel study found microfibers from synthetic clothing in oysters and other man-made pollutants in local wildlife.

"Microplastics are getting into our oceans and into our dolphins and our oysters, and that's getting into us," Bradner says. "That makes it clear that we need to be thinking about how we can target plastic pollution across the board ...

"It's certainly not a silver bullet for pollution," Bradner says. "But it takes a lot of the pressure off of our collective effort to come up with creative solutions for the things that are much harder, like fishing gear and plastic water bottles."

Bradner says that this ordinance only targets easy items that the community can shift away from. Many times, the ordinances go hand in hand with education and outreach — helping people not just understand why, but other ways they can be helping accomplish the underlying goal. As things stand now, Bowen says she's concerned that the community is lacking this knowledge.

"You have to educate people," she says. "Back in the day, we were being educated about litter and keeping the space around us clean. It was a big deal for us. I grew up in the '60s, '70s, '80s, and now, I've never seen this city dirtier."

But the biggest reason for Bowen's opposition to the ban seems much less nuanced.

"I don't like bans," she says. "I don't think bans are a part of a free society. Society is pretty good at not dictating, but reinforcing the positive. People were already using reusable bags. People were already not asking for plastic."

Bowen believes it goes back to personal accountability and waste management at higher levels.

"When's the last time you've driven down the interstate?" she asks. "Did you notice the trash? When's the last time you looked at a Target parking lot? Nobody is noticing the litter. Companies aren't being accountable for the trash around their buildings. The city isn't being accountable for the trash on the streets. That's how it gets in our waterways."

Bradner admits that it's a big change, especially for business owners, but supports the goals of the ordinance in targeting unnecessary convenience items or those the community already has alternatives for.

"That styrofoam that you're eating out of is leaching toxins the whole time you're doing that, especially if the food is hot," Bradner warns. "There are a lot of reasons to switch away from that, but it's much harder to find a replacement that works for you. It also tends to be more expensive to switch away from those styrofoam containers."

To Bowen, the ban doesn't seem like it's targeting items with good alternatives, it looks like it's taking the easy way out. Not only that, but fear of what's next looms when the first step seemed so simple and easy. After all, she says, after one ban, more will follow.

Bowen says she agrees with the ideals behind the new law, but has seen little buy-in from her customers who don't seem to care. After handing out 400 free reusable bags to shoppers during initial talks of the ordinance, Bowen says just three ever brought them back.

Bradner is hopeful that over time, those numbers will begin to change.

"These little changes that we can make, and the way we think about things," she says. "The hope is that we do it all together and, ultimately, we end up in a position where we can't imagine ever going back."

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