MOUNT PLEASANT — At Page's Okra Grill, one of the many businesses preparing for the town's ban on foam take-out containers, plastic bags and more, this week might be the last straw.

The last plastic straw, anyway. The restaurant was down to half a box Monday.

"We’re just not going to offer straws," said owner Courtney Page, who has also eliminated foam take-out containers 10 months before the town's ban takes effect. To comply, the restaurant switched to more expensive, dishwasher-safe plastic containers that can be recycled.

“We thought it would be a better idea to get ahead of it," Page said. “Plus, Styrofoam is awful and a lot of the servers were giving me a hard time about it."

Concerns about non-biodegradable disposable packaging littering area marshes, creeks and the ocean, and harming aquatic life including sea turtles, prompted Town Council to approve the new regulations on April 16. A year from that date the rules take effect.

The ban is a big deal in South Carolina because Mount Pleasant is the fourth-largest municipality in the state and the largest to approve such regulations.

12 million bags

"Twelve million plastic bags are distributed in our town each year and many of them end up in our waterways," Mayor Will Haynie said in his State of the Town address Tuesday.

Plastic straws, polystyrene foam containers and single-use plastic bags are among items businesses will no longer be able to distribute starting in mid-April 2019, although there are a number of exceptions. No more take-home food in foam "clamshell" containers, no more groceries in plastic bags and no more plastic straws unless customers specifically request them.

Outside South Carolina, similar bans can be found across the U.S. and in other nations. Hardly a week goes by without a new one being announced, and large companies have also been announcing plans to stop using such materials. For a sense of the momentum, consider:

  • Large cities from Washington, D.C., to Seattle have banned polystyrene containers. California has banned single-use plastic bags, as have cites from Boston to Austin, Texas, and every county in Hawaii.
  • In May, the European Commission drafted plans to ban plastic straws, drink lids and other items throughout the European Union by 2021, the Financial Times reported.
  • In June, international furniture company IKEA said it would stop selling single-use plastic products or using them in its restaurants by 2020, CNN Money reported.
  • In Kenya, a 2017 law outlawing the production, sale or use of single-use plastic bags carries a penalty of up to four years in jail. The Guardian called it the "world's toughest plastic bag ban."

"I’m glad that it’s kind of caught fire and picked up some steam and momentum," said Mount Pleasant Town Councilman Jim Owens, who raised the issue of banning plastic bags and foam containers in February and championed the ban. “I think we are looking, possibly, at a new economy."

Mount Pleasant's ban upset some state lawmakers who unsuccessfully tried to block the town's ban and prevent other municipalities from enacting them, but the town is hardly Kenya. Businesses that violate Mount Pleasant's ban, once it takes effect, could get a written warning followed by a fine of up to $200 for a second violation.  

The last straws 

In the court of public opinion, plastic straws have practically become the new cigarettes as businesses including hotel chains and Alaska Airlines rush to declare they will stop using them. Starbucks is testing plastic straw alternatives in England. Entire nations are banning them along with many cities.

“I kind of compare them (plastic straws) to the smoking ban," said David Miller, a partner in The Kickin' Chicken restaurant group. "It seems more popular to not have them than to have them."

This month Bloomberg reported that demand for paper straws has soared to the point where there's a three-month wait from one of the largest suppliers, Aardvark. The company, which traces its lineage to the man who patented the paper straw in the 1888, currently limits orders of some products to one case (3,200 straws) at a time, according to its website.

Mount Pleasant's ordinance allows businesses to give straws to customers upon request but Owens said he'd like to see that provision eliminated before the rules take effect.

“When I was a kid we used paper straws and paper bags," he said.

Driving much of the action in Mount Pleasant and worldwide is concern about polluting the oceans, which some studies project could have more plastic than fish in the coming years. This month a whale turned up dead in Thailand with nearly 17 pounds of plastic in its belly, American Express announced plans to introduce a credit card made from plastic recovered from the ocean and coastlines, and National Geographic devoted its June magazine cover to plastics in the ocean.

Several smaller coastal towns in South Carolina, including Isle of Palms and Folly Beach, had already blazed a trail, with bans on the distribution of single-use plastic bags. But Mount Pleasant is an affluent suburban town with nearly 87,000 residents — a potential game-changer because so many businesses will need to comply with the rules.

A ripple effect

The Kickin' Chicken restaurant group has just one location in Mount Pleasant but plans to change the food service packaging and materials at all six of its locations, Miller said.

“We actually went to a national restaurant show solely to work on this," he said. "We have (take-out container) samples coming in. We’ll put food in it for 30 minutes and see how it does."

“The costs have be absorbed by someone, either us or the consumer," Miller added. "We’ll have to look at that."

Josh Malone, owner of two Chick-fil-A franchises in Mount Pleasant, said large companies have an advantage.

"As a national brand we already operate in municipalities that have these types of requirements on packaging," he said. "So we have had opportunities to test what works."

"We are looking forward to getting samples of the paper straws here in Mount Pleasant that Chick-fil-A sources to see how they perform," Malone said.

Packaging industry groups and conservative legislative policy advocates, including the American Legislative Exchange Council, have supported statewide pre-emption legislation, banning local governments from approving local bans. A spokesperson for Publix Super Markets said complying with different local regulations can be difficult.

"We have supported legislation clarifying that the state has the authority to regulate the use of plastic bags and other containers, such as polystyrene, because it is very difficult and expensive to comply with a patchwork of local ordinances regarding what we can offer to our customers," said Kim Reynolds, speaking for Publix. "We are still determining how the local (Mount Pleasant) ordinance may impact us and our customers."

One question Publix will eventually need to address is, will its East Cooper stores that sit outside the town's boundaries follow the same rules? The Publix at The Shoppes at Park West, for example, is not in Mount Pleasant. That's true for a number of stores located in unincorporated East Cooper areas within the town's footprint.

Harris Teeter, which has been complying with Isle of Palms ban on single-use plastic bags since 2015, previously declined to comment on Mount Pleasant's ban. Harris Teeter, Publix and other large grocery chains typically offer paper bags as an option at checkout, and also sell reusable bags.

At Smoke BBQ, co-owner Roland Feldman said he's already looking around for new to-go containers that can handle hot, messy food.

“You put a juicy cheeseburger or some sauced wings into a paper container and next thing you know your guests have stains on their dresses," Feldman said. 

He said the restaurant plans to test options including biodegradable containers and see how much more they will cost. 

“If the Styrofoam and the plastic is messing it (the environment) up that bad, then I’m glad the people took control," Feldman said. “At the end of the day, man, we’ll do anything for the planet."

Reach David Slade at 843-937-5552. Follow him on Twitter @DSladeNews.