Plastic leaf bags likely on way out: Charleston County set to move to paper yard-waste containers

Charleston County Council is expected to soon start requiring residents to dispose of yard waste in paper bags instead of plastic bags, such as these along Savannah Highway in West Ashley.

Brad Nettles

In a change that could touch the lives of every Charleston County resident with a yard, County Council is poised to prohibit the use of plastic leaf bags.

If County Council approves the change, as expected, most people would need to switch from plastic bags to more expensive paper yard-waste bags. Residents also could reduce the amount of yard waste they put out for collection by mulching or composting their leaves, grass and pine needles.

The reason for the likely plastic-bag ban is the county's massive composting operation, which processed nearly 59,000 tons of yard waste last year. The county composts yard waste and sells the resulting product as a mulch and soil amendment, which residents can buy at a nominal cost.

However, most yard waste arrives at the Bees Ferry Landfill in plastic bags, which either get shredded and end up in the compost, or must be removed at the site.

The county has been using jail inmates to removed plastic bags from the yard waste at the landfill, but there is some expense involved in transporting and supervising the prisoners, Councilwoman Colleen Condon said.

"Before we did this temporary thing of removing the bags, if you got compost, it would be full of plastic," said Condon, a member of County Council's Recycling Committee. "We want people to take advantage of our compost, but we want it to be good compost."

"The logical answer is to remove the plastic bags from the source," she said.

If County Council goes ahead with the plastic-bag ban, it would take effect June 30. It would be up to municipalities and public service districts to decide the best way to collect yard waste and deliver it to the landfill without plastic bags.

"I don't think it will require anything but using paper or finding some other means of doing it," Council Chairman Teddie Pryor said. "Our department heads have been meeting with the different municipalities."

The county's three largest municipalities -- Charleston, North Charleston and Mount Pleasant -- all indicated that they would most likely require residents to switch to paper bags.

Some municipalities in the tri-county area, such as Summerville, have residents pile yard waste along the curb unbagged for collection.

Laura Cabiness, director of the Public Service Department for the city of Charleston, said that having unbagged piles of yard waste collected curb-side would be difficult in an urban area, and would involve expensive new equipment.

"I think it's likely that we would look at biodegradable bags," she said.

Mount Pleasant spokeswoman Martine Wolfe-Miller said it would be up to Town Council to decide, but "at this point the understanding is that we would go to paper bags."

Kraft paper bags are biodegradable and can be included in compost, but they are a bit more expensive than plastic.

Ace Hardware sells 25-bag packs of 30-gallon paper lawn bags for $10.49 on its website, for example. In smaller amounts, the bags typically cost about 50 cents each. A 28-bag pack of Hefty 30-gallon clear plastic bags sells for $7.62 on Walmart.com.

The county's plan is part of a larger effort to transform the way that solid waste is managed in Charleston County. Recent improvements to the facility at the Bees Ferry Landfill allowed the county to compost more yard waste, much of which previously was dumped in the landfill along with garbage.

The amount of yard waste composted went from about 20,000 tons in 2009 to nearly 59,000 tons last year. The diversion of yard waste to the composting area extends the life of the landfill and turns the material into useful compost.

Reach David Slade at 937-5552.