Charleston, the largest city in South Carolina, has banned plastic bags, straws and foam containers, joining the 10 other coastal communities that have already enacted similar bans over the past three years.

But the 11-2 vote by City Council on Tuesday didn't come easily. 

There were barely enough seats at City Hall for all the people who showed up to urge council to pass the ordinance, mostly arguing that the amount of plastic and foam trash ending up in the waterways is toxic for the ecosystem, human health and the region's booming tourism industry.

The supporters vastly outweighed the handful of vocal opponents, the majority of whom were representing the Hartsville-based plastic manufacturer Novolex.

But many council members spent the following hour discussing what the ordinance didn't do, such as eliminating litter, and whether to spend more time gathering input from residents and business owners who might not know about the proposal. 

City staff conducted surveys this year and in 2017 to gauge support among businesses and residents for a ban, and both showed roughly 99 percent of respondents were in favor of it.

Still, some restaurants voiced concerns about the cost of complying when interviewed about the change by The Post and Courier earlier this month.

Councilmen Robert Mitchell and James Lewis, who together represent most of the Upper Peninsula, cast the "no" votes. At least three of Lewis' constituents addressed him directly during the public comment period, asking him to support the ordinance.

But Lewis said people in his district rely on plastic bags and he wasn't convinced that businesses or nonprofits would distribute alternative types of bags to those who couldn't afford to buy them. 

"We’re not thinking of the people who are affected," Lewis said.

Mitchell said he wanted city staff to make sure all the neighborhoods were informed of the measure before the final vote was cast.

Mayor John Tecklenburg and council members Mike Seekings, Carol Jackson, Peter Shahid and William Dudley Gregorie spoke passionately in favor of finalizing the ban.

"It is very clear what our citizens want. Not what the industry wants, but what our citizens want. This is what they want because it’s the right thing to do," Shahid said, drawing applause and cheers from the gallery. 

Others who voted for it weren't enthusiastic. 

Councilmen Gary White and Bill Moody, for instance, said they wanted the city to focus on curbing litter, not banning certain sources of it. 

"I guess I’m going to have to pinch my nose and vote for this thing, but I think it could be better," White said.

Tecklenburg said the ordinance can be amended and perfected after it's passed, but that it can't be put off because the state Legislature is expected to revive a bill in January that could prevent local governments from enacting their own bans.

The measure died in the Statehouse this year, but pressure from plastics industry lobbyists will likely inspire another version of it. It’s unclear whether a new bill would protect the local bans already in place.

While the city's ordinance is now official, businesses will have until Jan. 1, 2020, to discontinue their use of straws and plastic and foam containers, and they have an option of extending the deadline another year if needed.

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Reach Abigail Darlington at 843-937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail.

Abigail Darlington is a local government reporter focusing primarily on the City of Charleston. She previously covered local arts & entertainment, technology, innovation, tourism and retail for the Post and Courier.

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