COLUMBIA — Some legislators' effort to prevent local governments from banning plastic bags headed Thursday to the Senate floor for a debate that pits big business against environmental forces.
The measure advanced by a Senate committee grandfathers in bans that were approved before Jan. 31, allowing local laws in Folly Beach, Isle of Palms, Surfside Beach and Hilton Head Island to continue.
But it would stop Mount Pleasant from enacting rules approved by Town Council earlier this week, which senators decried as the most expansive so far.
Beyond banning grocery store bags and take-out clamshell containers, the Mount Pleasant ordinance that's set to take effect next year also prohibits plastic foam coolers, packing peanuts and plastic straws.
Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said South Carolina clearly has a litter problem, particularly with plastics that impact the environment and marine life, and he agrees the Legislature should do something to address it.
But that doesn't mean allowing a growing hodgepodge of local rules that will require restaurants and retailers to make changes depending on where they're located, he said.
"It will increase costs," Massey said. "I'm concerned about the proliferation of ordinances that treat Walgreens differently in Mount Pleasant than they're treated in Beaufort or Columbia."
Sen. Sandy Senn, R-Charleston, opposed the legislation, which the House passed in February, but said Mount Pleasant's ban increased even her concerns about sweeping local laws.
"I don't think the timing could be worse," she said about the vote in South Carolina's fourth-largest city.
Still, she said, she's seen firsthand the benefits of Folly Beach's ban since its approval in the fall of 2016.
"The plastic bags floating around in our marshes and waterways have significantly decreased, and that's exactly why you see people from the coast opposing this bill," she said.
Senn attempted to change the legislation to grandfather in all local bans approved before Jan. 31, 2019, to incorporate Mount Pleasant's. But her amendment was overwhelmingly defeated, with senators saying it would only increase the patchwork with a rush of differing laws over the next year.
"Patchworks only work when you're talking about grandma's quilt," said Sen. Karl Allen, D-Greenville.
While the bill would preempt local laws that ban businesses from selling or giving customers plastic and foam containers, it lets local governments ban people from bringing them to a public beach or lake- or river-side park. It allows fines of up to $1,000.
Emily Cedzo of the Coastal Conservation League called the vote a "rejection of local rights and the will of the people."
The local bans are effectively tackling plastic pollution but legislators are siding with industry lobbyists, she said.
Mount Pleasant Mayor Will Haynie agreed coastal communities have unique issues they should be able to address on their own.
It's hypocritical for senators to criticize Washington and "give lip service to the freedoms and decentralized government afforded by home rule, then snatch it away from us when we, at the level of government closest to the citizens, do something they don't like," he said.
Karen Henderson, owner of Paper Party and More! in Mount Pleasant, encouraged the Senate to pass the bill.
She said months of debate over the town's regulations "opened up my eyes a little" about the impact of single-use plastic bags, and she's considering no longer using them for customers' purchases. But the broad ban could hurt her sales, she said.
"Half my store is plastic," she said of her party supply store. "I'm fine with the single-use bag (ban), and the foam thing, but what's next? Are they going to ban mylar balloons because they can end up in the water?"
David Slade contributed to this report.