County considers banning plastic bags

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Photo above: Rikki Parker of the Coastal Conservation League addresses about 65 members and guests of the League of Women Voters of Beaufort regarding plastic pollution in Beaufort County during the league’s meeting recently at the University of South Carolina Beaufort. Photo by Bob Sofaly.

By Amy Rigard

Should plastic bags be banned in unincorporated Beaufort County?

That’s a question members of the public discussed at the Beaufort County Natural Resources Committee meeting on Aug. 22.

An ordinance banning single-use plastic bags for retail checkout in unincorporated areas of Beaufort County would take effect Jan. 1, 2018, if it is passed by the Beaufort County Council. 

The Natural Resources Committee sent the draft ordinance to the county council, which will hold a first reading at its meeting at 6 p.m. Monday, Aug. 28, at the Hilton Head Island Branch Library at 11 Beach City Road.

The county listed a plastic bag ban ordinance as one of the five highest policy-making priorities in its 2017 strategic plan, and the issue has received increased attention recently.  

In June, the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce surveyed approximately 700 people and found that 71 percent of respondents would support a plastic bag ban on Hilton Head. 

Single-use plastic bags are one of the main contributors of plastic litter, and they often end up in the ocean and other waterways, according to the Coastal Conservation League.

Rikki Parker, South Coast Project manager for the Coastal Conservation League, noted several ways plastic bag pollution is negatively impacting the Lowcountry. 

“First and foremost, plastic bags are very harmful to our local wildlife,” said Parker. 

Sea turtles often mistake plastic bags for jellyfish – one of their food sources – and can die due to subsequent digestive issues. Sea and shore birds can also be affected if they were to become entangled in plastic bags and unable to fly, she said.

Plastic bags break down into microplastics, which never fully decompose, and can act as sponges for toxic materials in the environment. 

These microplastics can be ingested by shrimp, oysters, mussels and small fish, and microplastics are then consumed by those eating the affected shellfish, said Parker.

In addition to the negative effects on area wildlife, time and resources are necessary to clean up the litter to prevent bags from clogging storm water drains and getting into the ocean, rivers and marshes.

In 2015, Isle of Palms became the first city in the state to pass an ordinance banning businesses from offering single-use plastic bags to customers. Folly Beach enacted a similar ban in 2016 and added Styrofoam containers to its ban.

Not everyone favors a bag ban or fee for violators. A statewide preemption bill was proposed during the last session to prevent local municipalities from enacting bag bans or fees. While that bill was tabled in March, it will likely resurface again in January 2018 when the second year of the legislative session begins. 

The American Progressive Bag Alliance and NOVOLEX (www.bagtheban.com) have been vocal opponents of bag bans in South Carolina. 

NOVOLEX, whose corporate headquarters is in Hartsville, is a manufacturer of recycled content high-density polyethylene (HDPE) bags, paper bags, films and related products. 

They argue that bag bans and fees on violators threaten manufacturing jobs and cause local businesses to lose customers and money. They also argue that plastic bags are 100-percent recyclable and are reused by 90 percent of consumers.

A number of counties, cities and other municipalities throughout the country have enacted plastic bag bans or fees. San Jose, Calif., banned plastic bags in 2011 and has since reported a reduction in bag litter of nearly 90 percent in its storm drain system. California became the first state to ban single-use plastic bags statewide.

Any plastic bag ban passed by Beaufort County Council would only affect unincorporated parts of the county. Local municipalities such as Beaufort, Bluffton or Port Royal, would have to enact their own bans or fees. However, officials like Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling, have indicated they would consider a plastic bag ban if the county passes its ordinance.

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