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Plastics ban in Charleston passes first council review after lengthy debate

Charleston is on the verge of banning single-use plastic bags, straws and foam containers, but it's not a sure thing just yet.

City Council on Tuesday initially approved the ordinance that prohibits businesses from selling or giving out those items, but a few council members said they weren't entirely supportive of it yet, signaling it could fail when it's brought back to council for final review. 

If it does win enough votes next time, Charleston will become the largest city in South Carolina to enact such a ban, and will join a number of the state's coastal communities that have already moved in that direction, including Mount Pleasant and Beaufort County.

A few council members raised concerns about the ordinance, particularly the process for giving businesses exceptions to the rules. Mayor John Tecklenburg and council members Carol Jackson, Peter Shahid, Mike Seekings, Keith Waring and William Dudley Gregorie formed the six solid "yes" votes — one short of the usual seven needed for a win. That means just one vote could make a big difference on the final review.

Ultimately, council reached enough of a consensus to move it forward with 10 votes on the condition that staff would evaluate their concerns and suggest possible tweaks.

That decision came after an hour-long debate about whether a ban would truly curb the amount of trash that's threatening local waterways and marshes.

Film plastics and polystyrene foam are difficult to recycle and are not biodegradable, so when they break down, they form microplastics that make their way into the aquatic food chain. Sea turtles are particularly at risk, because they often mistake plastic bags for jellyfish and ingest them.

Councilman Bill Moody, who abstained from voting, argued that the city needed to better enforce littering laws because he wasn't convinced that banning plastic food containers and grocery bags would make much of a difference.

"I could get on board with it ... if there is some increase in the enforcement of our litter laws," he said.

Councilman James Lewis cast the only "no" vote. He said the city passes too many ordinances and doesn't put enough energy into enforcing them. He also said many people in the minority communities he represents prefer to use plastic grocery bags.

Councilman Harry Griffin was absent.

Mayor John Tecklenburg urged council not to delay the decision because a bill that would prevent local governments from banning plastics is expected to be reintroduced when the state Legislature reconvenes in January.

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.

Some council members who ended up supporting the ban questioned it, echoing some of the plastic industry's common talking points.

Councilman Kevin Shealy, for instance, voted with the majority. But first he argued that plastic shopping bags can be recycled if consumers take them to specific drop-off sites, and that paper shopping bags require more energy to produce. He also said the ban will end up costing local businesses because alternative types of bags and containers cost more than plastic and foam.

"Our local grocers are going to hurt from this. It’s going to cost them a lot," he said.

Shealy serves on the Resilience and Sustainability Advisory Committee, which proposed the ordinance.

"I understand the importance, I really do, but I felt like we need to be fully educated that these plastic bags are not as damaging overall to the environment as I believed when I was sitting on that committee at that point," he said.

Dozens of people including residents, business owners, scientists and conservationists spoke in favor of the measure. Only one opposed it, and he represented the global plastics manufacturer Novolex. 

Andrew Wunderley of the Charleston Waterkeeper was among the supporters. He said the nonprofit organizes a number of beach cleanups throughout the year, and the most common types of litter were all on the proposed list of banned items. 

"This ordinance is really smart. It’s very narrowly tailored to the types of debris that we find during cleanups," he said.

Since 2016, the city has conducted two informal surveys to gauge how residents and businesses felt about it. Respondents of both surveys overwhelmingly supported the ban.

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

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