Without much fanfare, Isle of Palms recently became South Carolina’s first municipality to ban single-use plastic bags from the city’s businesses. If a bill proposed in the state House late last month gains much traction, the Isle of Palms ban may also be the state’s last.
Two lawmakers representing upstate districts home to or located nearby major plastics manufacturers recently filed a bill seeking to give the state Legislature sole control over regulations regarding “auxiliary containers.” That includes plastic bags as well as cups, packages, bottles and other packaging made from a variety of materials.
Plastic bag bans have stirred up controversy in several other states and municipalities in recent years. Opponents say they hurt small businesses, limit consumer choice, kill manufacturing jobs and don’t ultimately do much to clean up the environment.
But evidence shows otherwise.
Cities that restrict the use of bags typically — and unsurprisingly — witness a sharp reduction in plastic bag use. A 2015 study by the Austin, Texas city government found that banning single-use plastic bags led to a 75 percent reduction in the use of plastic bags citywide. That’s 200 million fewer bags per year.
A bill passed last year that could make California the first to ban bags statewide included a provision for funding to help bag manufacturers transition into new materials and technologies, tempering any impact on jobs and industry.
And considering that Americans throw away more than 100 billion plastic bags per year, cutting down on that waste inevitably means fewer bags winding up on roadsides, in streams and eventually in oceans. Some municipalities have reported as much as a 95 percent reduction in plastic bag litter following bans.
For coastal communities like Isle of Palms and the rest of the Charleston area, plastic bag litter is a critical concern for marine wildlife. According to the Ocean Conservancy, plastic bags are the fourth most-common kind of trash collected by volunteers along coastlines, behind cigarette butts, food wrappers and bottles.
Plastic bags are an eyesore on land, but once in the water they can be deadly for sea turtles, birds and other wildlife. And as they gradually break down, plastic bags turn into tinier and tinier pieces that are consumed by an even larger variety of species, leeching toxic chemicals into the food chain and potentially into humans who eat fish, shrimp and other seafood.
But unlike other common types of litter, plastic bags are completely replaceable. Reusable bags can dramatically cut back on waste, and using the same reusable bag for multiple grocery trips throughout the year can significantly reduce the environmental impact of shopping.
The Isle of Palms bag ban won’t magically clean up Lowcountry beaches or waterways, but it is a small step in the right direction. Rather than trying to prevent other municipalities from working to reduce litter and protecting the environment, state lawmakers should be encouraging innovation and creative solutions.
The General Assembly should bag the bag ban ban.