Plastic-bag ban is another example of costly overregulation

A weekday on the front beach at the Isle of Palms. (Wade Spees/Staff)

It’s entirely sensible for the people of Isle of Palms to be committed to maintaining the island’s natural beauty. But recently, a group of residents took that commitment to a more extreme — and unfortunately misguided — level.

Several well-intentioned Isle of Palms citizens convinced the City Council to craft a “green” ordinance that threatens local jobs by banning plastic retail bags.

Council members and the mayor have already spoken positively about the proposed law, but the issue isn’t so cut and dry. In fact, the effects of such an ordinance could have nasty ramifications for the city and South Carolina as a whole.

As an employee of Novolex, the nation’s leading plastic and paper bag manufacturer and recycler, I see firsthand the enormously positive impact our business has on local economies. And with our headquarters in Hartsville, our contributions to the people and economy of South Carolina are particularly noteworthy. Across the Palmetto State, the plastic bag industry supports 200 high-quality jobs in four facilities, adding $34.6 million to the state’s economy.

A plastic bag ban in Isle of Palms may sound good in theory, but it’s just another instance of unnecessary government interference. This overregulation threatens to sabotage South Carolina’s pro-business reputation, compromise consumer choice and drive up costs for local stores and shoppers — all without significantly impacting beach litter.

And the damage won’t be contained to a single community or even a single industry. Other businesses will feel the pinch, starting with South Carolina’s number one employer: the retail industry. Local businesses will bear the brunt of the proposed regulation, from fines and penalties to soaring compliance costs and the additional expenses related to supplying alternative bags.

Isle of Palms leaders should consider all the facts, including the biggest myth around plastic grocery bags: their impact on litter and the environment. Like any product, plastic bags can be an environmental challenge if they are disposed of improperly, but that challenge is too often overstated by proponents of bag regulation.

In fact, plastic grocery bags are just a miniscule contributor to the American waste stream. According to the Ocean Conservancy, they comprise just 1.8 percent of litter collected along beaches and inland waterways. And South Carolina is below that average at 1.5 percent. No wonder, the ban on plastic bags in the Outer Banks hasn’t made a dent in reducing the island’s litter since being passed in 2009.

In Isle of Palms, a city ordinance would be just as hollow. I would imagine that most visitors to Isle of Palms beaches are not shopping just at the local Harris Teeter. As you know, there are many stores nearby in Mount Pleasant where beachgoers can easily shop and still receive plastic bags. And if an ordinance were implemented in Isle of Palms, they would likely take their business elsewhere at an even higher rate.

A study by the National Center for Policy Analysis confirms this likelihood, concluding that a ban on plastic bags prompts consumers to shop in areas just outside of it.

Nevertheless, Isle of Palms’ desire to be more sustainable is something my company understands and shares. We are deeply committed to litter reduction and recycling solutions, as demonstrated through our Bag-2-Bag program, which enables people to deposit used plastic bags and wraps into bins at local stores for recycling. In fact, we have established over 30,000 of these retailer drop-off points throughout the country, including a number of Lowe’s, Walmart and Publix locations in South Carolina. Penalizing grocery shoppers with fees or taxes on 100 percent recyclable products does not help this cause.

In recent years, South Carolina’s leaders have brought a host of new business to the state. In just the first quarter of this year, they announced 27 economic development projects resulting in more than 5,100 new jobs across 14 South Carolina counties. Last year, the state recruited approximately 19,020 new jobs — a nearly 25 percent increase from 2013.

Just this month, for example, Volvo announced plans to build a new $500 million plant in South Carolina instead of neighboring Georgia because of the state’s favorable business climate. For this growth to continue, a reputation for taxing industry and restricting consumer choice is the last thing South Carolina needs.

Isle of Palms is just one municipality, but the negative consequences of its proposed ban on plastic bags will be felt by hardworking business owners and employees statewide. There’s a role for government in sustainability initiatives, but not when the policy works to sabotage high-quality, well-paying jobs in exchange for symbolic environmental gestures.

Mark Daniels is senior vice president of sustainability and environmental policy for Novolex.