Charleston's recently passed ban on single-use plastic and foam items means more than half of the Lowcountry's coastline extending from Beaufort County to the Isle of Palms will have at least some form of a restriction on the most common types of litter found in the region's waterways.
With all 11 communities that have enacted similar ordinances, bans now cover about 1,143 square miles along the South Carolina coast.
In addition to Charleston, they are Mount Pleasant, Isle of Palms, Sullivan's Island, Folly Beach, Surfside Beach, Hilton Head Island, Bluffton, Beaufort, Port Royal and Beaufort County.
Environmentalists say it's difficult to predict how much the bans will shield the region's waterways from plastic pollution, but with every community that joins in, all the bans become more effective.
"Overall, I think we’re going to see meaningful reduction," said Emily Cedzo of the Coastal Conservation League. "We’re taking a significant amount of just unnecessary single-use plastics out of the supply coming into our community."
She said measuring the impact involves taking stock of the litter found before and after ordinances are passed. When the local chapter of the Surfrider Foundation did that on Folly Beach, it saw an 80 percent decrease in the number of single-use plastic bags found on the beach and in the marsh.
"We are hopeful and I think likely to see similarly high numbers in these neighboring communities that have more recently enacted bans," Cedzo said.
Citadel physiology professor John Weinstein and his students have found over the past few years that at least 7½ tons of plastic is breaking down in the Charleston Harbor, creating what are called microplastics that are then ingested by fish, birds, turtles, shrimp, oysters and more.
Weinstein said studies are showing that these tiny pieces of trash ultimately slow down animals' growth and their reproduction.
"That’s going to have population-level effects," he said. "Once you start removing populations of shrimp, let’s say, that is going to have ecosystem effects and community-level effects."
He said banning the items can only be seen as a positive effort to curb the problem.
"Speaking as a private citizen, I’m encouraged there’s a grassroot effort to ban these types of plastics because I know from my own research that they’re having an adverse impact on the environment," he said.
The trend of regulating plastics, especially single-use plastic bags, has been sweeping across the country for several years. More than 350 cities, counties and states have enacted some measure to curb the distribution of plastic bags, either through bans or taxes on them, according to Forbes.
In response, 10 states have passed legislation to prevent local governments from passing their own bans.
A South Carolina bill outlawing the bans died in the Statehouse this year, but pressure from plastics industry lobbyists will likely inspire another version when the sessions starts in January. It’s unclear whether a new bill would protect the local bans already in place.
While the efforts in the Charleston area haven't imposed any new taxes, consumers will likely end up paying more in the long run for alternatives.
Right now, alternative types of take-out containers, straws and bags are a bit pricier than foam and plastic, so consumers could start seeing that reflected on their tabs once all the bans go into effect. Charleston's will be enforced starting Jan. 1, 2020, which gives businesses more than a year to make the necessary changes.
Berlin's Restaurant Supply, the North Charleston-based wholesaler of restaurant equipment and disposable wares, carries the traditional plastic and foam goods such as straws, take-out containers, cups and lids, but they also carry the alternatives, too, which are often recyclable or biodegradable.
Rebecca Tyler, who works in the purchasing department, said it won't be difficult for Berlin's to switch to those eco-friendly products, but it's probably going to be more expensive for their clients, at least initially.
For instance, the wholesale price of a foam box is 5 cents. The lowest-priced alternative, made out of sugarcane, is 18 cents.
"Restaurants may scale back on the variety of to-go boxes and packaging offered to their customers, or add a slight convenience fee to offset the cost," Tyler said.
Eventually, though, if more communities require the alternatives, the demand will likely lead to more supply, which might bring down prices.
"I think it’ll be opening up a brand-new industry for people out there to come up with new ideas," she said.