From the Post & Courier’s Abigail Darlington: Charleston, Folly Beach consider curbing plastic bag use; could bring national fight to SC
Isle of Palms became the first town in South Carolina to ban plastic bags last year, and now Charleston and Folly Beach are looking to curb consumption of the single-use bags, possibly by banning them or imposing a fee at checkout counters.
In doing so they could bring the nationwide fight over plastic bags to South Carolina, which happens to be the headquarters of one of the largest packaging manufacturers in North America, a company leading the fight against such restrictions.
Folly Beach City Council is voting at its Aug. 9 meeting on whether to prevent the island’s merchants from distributing or selling plastic bags, and also Styrofoam coolers. Members of Charleston County and city of Charleston government, environmental groups and nonprofit organizations have joined forces on an online survey to gauge how the public feels about measures to curb plastic bag use.
The debate touches on deeply held and conflicting ideologies, and like smoking laws, bag bans and fees pose a serious threat to a powerful industry.
For supporters, banning single-use plastic bags is a small step toward changing the collective priority list, putting environment above consumption. Opponents generally condemn such bans as another affront to their personal freedoms and choices.
Manufacturers of plastic bags, led primarily by Hartsville-based packaging giant Novolex and its subsidiary Helix Poly, fund a legion of groups including Bag the Ban and the American Progressive Bag Alliance that have argued in courts nationwide against bag bans and fees.
Philip Rozenski, senior director of sustainability for Novolex, said the company opposes restrictions because they don’t work to reduce litter in the environment. He also said they threaten jobs.
“These are bad policies, they don’t capture results in the end and all they do is ban or tax products that are made here in the United States,” he said.
Jennie Romer, a New York attorney, has become an expert on plastic bag law in the United States after working for about a decade on bag bans and similar measures in California and New York. She called Novolex “a huge player in this fight.”
“Pretty much any city council that’s looking into this will probably hear from the American Progressive Bag Alliance,” she said. “They’re the ones that show up to all the local hearings.”
The issue has only just arrived on the Palmetto State’s shores, where beach front communities are testing the waters. So far, it hasn’t been too controversial. Isle of Palms had a relatively smooth transition to paper from plastic, with little opposition, according to island Mayor Dick Cronin.
“We embraced it and moved on,” he said, “and it’s been fine ever since.”
The question is whether consensus on the issue can be found in other municipalities in the Lowcountry and elsewhere in the state.
Matter of opinion
Consensus appears to be what the Charleston coalition aims to explore with the survey the city is hosting on its website until Sept. 9. It asks respondents about how they use plastic bags, whether they support fees or a ban on plastic bags to reduce their use, and whether they agree that the bags create certain problems for the environment.
The city is conducting the research with Charleston County Environmental Management and about 10 other entities, including the Coastal Conservation League, the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, the Medical University of South Carolina and the South Carolina Aquarium. The survey is being disseminated mostly through the entities’ social media accounts and email newsletters.
The group was formed after a group of citizens met with Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg to ask the city to look into plastic bag use, said Josh Martin, senior advisor to the mayor.
Martin said the group’s intent is not to build support for plastic bag fees or a ban. However, a stated goal of the group conducting the survey is to explore “ways to minimize the use of plastic — specifically, single-use plastic bags — to benefit the health and natural beauty of our community,” according to the online questionnaire.
The survey includes questions asking if the respondent would support a fee on plastic bags, hypothetically ranging from 5 cents per bag to a dollar, and asks what should be done with the revenue.
“Basically, we want to get some opinions regarding plastic bag use, given that they are listed on the top five sources of plastic litter,” Martin said. “We don’t have a preconceived agenda … of what we’re trying to accomplish. We’re just putting it out there as a non-biased survey.”
Douglas Ferguson, a communications professor at the College of Charleston, often teaches students how to evaluate the merits of surveys and other research methods. He said the plastic bag survey’s flaw is that it is conducted by a group with a desired outcome.
“Anyone preceding a survey with a ‘purpose statement’ that clearly biases the findings is unprofessional,” Ferguson said. “If you truly want to know what people think, just ask them and let the truth be known, plus or minus a few percentage points for sampling and measurement error. Don’t try to steer the responses to your goal, regardless how noble.”
Beaches take the plunge
The Coastal Conservation League and the Charleston Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, two local environmental groups, also conducted a survey. Then they suggesting the plastic bag ban to Folly Beach City Council.
The organizations sent the questionnaire to more than 100 members of the Folly Association of Businesses, and of the 22 who responded, 60 percent supported the ban, association president Lewis Dodson said. At a routine association meeting, he said members voted unanimously to support the ordinance.
“We all know it’s going to be a burden,” he said, “but we’re willing to make that sacrifice because it is important to maintaining a strong and beautiful beach, without which we don’t really have a livelihood.”
Councilman D.J. Rich proposed the ordinance after working with those organizations. He couldn’t be reached for comment last week.
Cronin said businesses on Isle of Palms were also receptive to the bag ban, which was approved last year and took effect Jan. 1. Citizens brought the matter to council after a study by The Citadel estimated that more than 7 tons of plastics sit by the water or under tidal water around Charleston Harbor at any given time.
Many retailers — including the island’s largest, Harris Teeter — removed the plastic sacks from their stores’ checkouts before the ban took effect in January, Cronin said.
“They are good stewards,” he said. “They see how fragile the environment is on an island like this is and all over the Lowcountry.”
Danna Robinson, publicist for Harris Teeter, said paper bags are more expensive than plastics, but the company adheres to any ordinances established by local governments.
Cronin said the measure seems to have reduced the number of plastic bags in the local environment, although they haven’t been eliminated since neighboring municipalities still allow them.
Folly Beach, the city of Charleston and Charleston County appear to be the only local governments that have taken interest in the issue. Representatives of Berkeley and Dorchester counties said they aren’t aware of any proposals to deal with plastic bags in those areas.
Cronin said he’d support any additional efforts to curb their use.
“We think it’s a good thing for our environment, and we think it’s a good thing for other communities to consider as well,” he said.
State and local efforts to minimize plastic bag consumption have swept across the nation in recent years, but the majority of successful measures have been on the city and county levels. Large cities with plastic bag bans or fees include New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle and Washington, D.C. The Outer Banks, North Carolina, banned them in 2010.
At least 20 states introduced bills in 2015 and this year in an effort to decrease the use of plastic bags by imposing a ban or fee or by improving recycling efforts, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. None of the bills have passed. California banned plastic bags in 2014, but a referendum on the November ballot will ask voters whether to repeal it.
Three states — Arizona, Idaho and Missouri — have enacted laws to keep local governments from passing bag bans or similar measures. You might call them bans on bag bans.
Around the same time the Isle of Palms’ bag law took effect, two South Carolina lawmakers — House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, and Rep. Eric Bedingfield, R-Belton — sponsored a bill that also would have prevented other local bans by giving the Legislature the authority to regulate the use of “a bag, cup, package, container, bottle, or other packaging.” It didn’t make it out of the House Judiciary Committee by the end of the legislative session.
Reba Campbell, executive director of the Municipal Association of South Carolina, said it makes sense that the bag bans have been more successful on the local level because “local elected officials are the ones who are closest to what’s going on in their communities.” The association opposes state measures that would thwart a city’s authority on a local matter, she said.
Preemptive statewide bills are “the biggest threat” to any municipalities looking to ban or charge fees for plastic bags, according to Romer.
“We’ve seen that more and more,” she said, adding anti-bag-ban lobbyists are typically behind those measures. “Those trade groups do an impressive job in getting their message out there and slowing cities down.”
Rozenski said he has looked into Charleston’s online survey, and that Novolex has made its position against plastic bag restrictions known in the state.
“Novolex employs 6,000 people, and to have these kinds of policies that threaten American jobs, that don’t get results, we do take concern over that,” he said.
Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail