Charleston’s single-use plastic bag and foam products ban, which received tentative approval at City Council earlier this month and is up for another vote Tuesday, wouldn’t completely end littering or entirely prevent plastics from winding up in local waterways.
It wouldn’t save every single sea turtle or other marine animal from ingesting plastic bags and other litter or stop climate change and hold back the rising seas that threaten the city’s future livability.
But it would represent a small but significant step toward a cleaner, more sustainable Charleston. For that reason, it merits passage.
Several other South Carolina municipalities have already banned plastic bags and foam containers, including Mount Pleasant, Folly Beach and Isle of Palms. Charleston, however, would be the most populous city to make that decision.
Adding Charleston to the small but growing number of coastal communities fighting for a cleaner, healthier environment would boost the effectiveness of the bans already in place and build a bigger buffer to keeping plastic waste out of local waterways.
Critics of the plastics ban made some sensible points when City Council last considered the ordinance two weeks ago.
Single-use plastic bags take less energy to produce and transport than do paper or reusable bags. Switching to recyclable or compostable alternatives will cost local businesses money. Banning bags and foam containers won’t stop people from littering.
But those arguments, and many of the others that tend to pop up when similar bans are considered, aren’t so much reasons to reject proposals like the one Charleston City Council is considering as they are reasons why even more effort will be needed.
The fact that the alternatives to plastic bags also consume so much energy and resources to produce and transport suggests we ought to reconsider the many other resource-intensive products and packaging we use a single time and then throw away.
The fact that recyclable and compostable alternatives — which are pretty much useless unless they are recycled or composted, by the way — cost more than single-use plastics suggests we ought to invest in research and technology to make “greener” products more affordable and effective.
The fact that littering is such a significant problem even in a place with as much natural beauty as the Charleston area suggests we might focus on enforcing laws and educating people about the true impacts of trashing our environment, beyond just the aesthetic concerns.
In some cases, the changes we really need are beyond the scope of what a city can achieve through an ordinance. Truly protecting our natural home requires an individual effort and concern for how our choices and lifestyles impact our surroundings now and for decades to come.
Public officials can’t make those changes for us.
But they can push local businesses to take small but meaningful steps toward a healthier, cleaner and more environmentally friendly path. Charleston City Council should pass the plastic bag and foam container ban.