- Associated Press - Sunday, July 30, 2017

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) - After a Statehouse bill earlier this year tried to thwart local efforts to ban plastic bags, some coastal communities in South Carolina are pushing even harder for local policies to curb consumption of single-use plastics.

Hilton Head Island Town Council recently asked a planning subcommittee to evaluate a potential ban on plastic bags. In June, the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce surveyed about 700 people in the area and found 71 percent would support the measure.

Beaufort County Council also appears to be on the verge of banning plastic bags. The issue is listed as one of the five highest policy-making priorities in the county’s 2017 strategic plan. The Natural Resources Committee meets about it for the first time Aug. 21.

Rikki Parker, South Coast Project manager for the Coastal Conservation League, has been working closely with officials looking at plastic bag policies in the Beaufort area.

She said the Legislature’s attempt to prevent local governments from restricting the use of plastic bags and Styrofoam containers probably helped move the issue forward in the region.

The bill was tabled in March, but it can be brought up again when the second year of the legislative session begins in January.

“If it’s done anything, it’s kind of provided a little bit more urgency to this issue,” Parker said. “Once they heard about it, they (Beaufort area officials) thought, ‘I don’t want the state to tell us how to handle local issues. We better get on this.’”

Other cities such as Charleston and Aiken have also looked into the issue over the past year, but elected officials there appear to be in no rush to regulate how merchants bag their customers’ goods.

Talk of minimizing plastic bags is relatively new in South Carolina, and so far has gained the most traction in small beach towns.

Single-use plastic bags are among the top contributors of plastic litter, and they often end up in the ocean, threatening aquatic ecosystems. A study by The Citadel estimated that more than 7 tons of plastics sit by the water or under tidal water around the Charleston Harbor at any given time.

The city of Isle of Palms was the first in the state to pass an ordinance in 2015 banning businesses from offering single-use plastic bags to customers. Folly Beach followed suit about a year later, adding Styrofoam containers to its ban.

The city of Charleston formed a committee around the same time last year to craft two surveys to see how residents and businesses felt about efforts to curb plastic bag use in the area. The committee included representatives from Charleston County Environmental Management, the Coastal Conservation League, the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, the Medical University of South Carolina, the South Carolina Aquarium and others.

Of the 4,733 individuals who responded, about 96 percent said they support efforts to reduce single-use plastic bags. Most of the 222 businesses surveyed already use bags made out of other materials, but all but 4 percent said they support some sort of measure to minimize plastic bag use.

The results were posted online recently, but little else has been done with the information.

Josh Martin, an adviser to Mayor John Tecklenburg, said there are no specific plans to submit the results to City Council or any other committees for discussion.

“It’s on the list of things to consider, but we’ve had more pressing matters we’ve been trying to work on,” he said, citing other issues such as affordable housing and the rapid growth of new hotels.

Plastic bags have also been slow to get on the agenda in Aiken. The Energy and Environmental Committee recommended a ban to City Council about a year ago, but Andy Hallen, a committee member who led that effort, said it hasn’t been made a priority.

“Our City Council is just so busy with other issues that they haven’t had time to look at it,” he said.

Emily Cedzo of the Coastal Conservation League said it’s possible the debate about banning plastic bags on the state level could have led some cities and towns to reevaluate how they want to handle the issue.

“I think there’s still a lot of uncertainty,” she said.

In the meantime, she said there are plenty of other efforts afoot to clean up litter and limit consumption of single-use plastics.

For example, the Charleston chapter of the Surfrider Foundation recently launched its Strawless Summer campaign to encourage local bars and restaurants not to hand out plastic straws unless patrons ask for them. About 150 businesses have joined the cause.

Surfrider also heads up regular litter sweeps on local beaches. Kate Ditloff, chairwoman of the local organization, said their teams are picking up fewer plastic bags on Isle of Palms and Folly Beach since the bans were passed, but many filmy shopping bags still find their way to the shore.

“A lot of those plastic bags do come from more inland cities, and we hope those cities take a hard look at the problem,” she said.

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Information from: The Post and Courier, https://www.postandcourier.com

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