The state wants to ban local governments from banning plastic bags?

Discarded plastic bags litter a bluff on a tidal creek in the Charleston Harbor estuary. File

A handful of community activists are quietly pushing to ban the use of plastic bags in Charleston, as Isle of Palms did last year. Meanwhile, a high-profile state legislator has co-sponsored a bill to deny local bans.

The bill, now in the House Judiciary Committee, would give only the General Assembly the authority to regulate the use of “a bag, cup, package, container, bottle, or other packaging” used to carry purchases. It’s co-sponsored by Speaker of the House Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, and sponsored by Rep. Eric Bedingfield, R-Belton.

Lucas represents a district that includes the Sonoco headquarters, one of the largest manufacturers of packaging in the world, among a number of packaging-affiliated companies that operate in or near the two representatives’ districts.

The bill was filed last week as West Ashley resident James Anthony met with conservation groups, including Charleston Waterkeeper and the Coastal Conservation League, to rally support as he approaches Charleston City Council officials and council members about enacting a ban along the lines of the Isle of Palms ban.

After meeting with Anthony on Wednesday, City Councilman Peter Shahid said he would sponsor a bill and looked forward to hearing both pros and cons as it’s debated.

The ban in Isle of Palms was urged by an informal group of community members who, like Anthony, are concerned about the litter and danger to wildlife caused by discarded bags. It was widely popular among residents but opposed by the S.C. Retail Association, which cited a study by North Carolina environment regulators that concluded a plastic bag ban at retailers on the Outer Banks did not reduce beach litter.

“I saw what Isle of Palms did and thought, we need to do that. This is a shot at making a real change,” Anthony said. He plans to request a ban in other Charleston-area governments, too. He had been told the House bill was coming, he said.

“We take (the bill) with a grain of salt. We’ll deal with it as it comes,” said activist Carole Benson of Mount Pleasant, who is working with Anthony. A ban “is just common sense, as far as I can see. We don’t need the bags. People got along without them before. We don’t need the damage they are doing. It’s a no-brainer to try to do something about it.”

Lucas did not return calls and an email seeking comment.

Bedingfield said he did not know if packaging companies operated in his district.

“My personal belief is this is a consumer’s choice, not a government’s,” he said. “Most people don’t recognize the fact that there’s a business out there making these bags. It doesn’t make sense to have government step in.”

Were the bill to pass, it would not override any municipality that had a law on the books, Bedingfield said. The bill reserves to the General Assembly the authority to enact laws to ensure whatever laws might be passed would be uniform from locality to locality, he said.

The Conservation League and Waterkeeper are appealing to supporters to write legislators to oppose the bill.

“This is a home-rule state. We believe letting our local governments decide what’s best. We have so many people who volunteer their time on turtle patrols, beach sweeps and such, I have doubts our state legislators would find it appropriate to impose a state ban dictating how local communities manage their waste,” said Katie Zimmerman, league program director.

“Grass-roots efforts like Jim’s are important because plastic pollution impacts local waterways and local communities are in the best position to create solutions. Also, plastic industry lobbyists are very active in South Carolina’s General Assembly,” said Charleston Waterkeeper Andrew Wunderley.

Prentiss Findlay contributed to this report. Reach Bo Petersen at 843-937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.