Charleston, Folly Beach consider curbing plastic bag use; could bring national fight to SC

Plastic bags are left as trash along the marsh at Waterfront Park on Monday July 25, 2016. File/Grace Beahm/Staff

COLUMBIA — State lawmakers have advanced a bill that would keep local governments from enacting bans on plastic bags in their communities, outraging coastal residents and environmentalists.

The bill's primary sponsor, Rep. Eric Bedingfield, R-Belton, said he believed it is up to an individual to decide if they didn't want to use a plastic shopping bag.

He defended his legislation during a hearing Wednesday, comparing the effort to a slippery slope encouraging other community-generated bans, including on guns.

"My question would just be, simply, what's next after these plastic bags?" he said. "Is it paper McDonald's cups? Is it Styrofoam cups from the barbecue joint down the street? Is it the Styrofoam to-go boxes? Is it guns? What we gonna ban next? That’s how simple it is for me." 

Two Charleston area municipalities — Folly Beach and Isle of Palms — currently are the only ones in South Carolina to have some form of ban on the bags.

Despite testimony from coastal residents and environmentalists opposing the measure, a House panel Wednesday gave initial approval to the measure. The bill, which was introduced last year but didn't gain traction, easily moved through a business and commerce subcommittee by a 6-1 vote.

Chairman Mac Toole, R-West Columbia, cast the only vote against it. Toole expressed serious concern over litter in general, noting that often when he sees trash along the road, it's plastic bags.

Several residents from the Charleston area asked the panel to kill the bill, including people from Isle of Palms, which passed an ordinance in 2015 to ban the use of plastic bags. Folly Beach also last year banned use of plastic bags and balloons on the beach, as well as polystyrene coolers and food-and-beverage containers.

Isle of Palms resident Kathy Kent said she didn't understand why the state would hinder a local municipality's ability to govern itself. 

"Our coast and the health of our beach is important to all of us who live there," she said. "It’s important to tourism, it’s important to property values, it’s important for wildlife and every other thing you can think of. People's livelihoods are based on what our island looks like."

But Rep. Pat Henegan, D-Bennettsville, said she worried about those who work at manufacturing plants such as Sonoco in Hartsville, where some plastic bags are made.

"I stayed up last night really, really concerned about this issue," Henegan said. "But more than anything else I was concerned about how many jobs would be affected by this and even spin off jobs."

Of the approximate 15 people who spoke on the bill, only two spoke in favor — both associated with the S.C. Manufacturers Alliance.

Mark Daniels, senior vice president of sustainability with Novolex, said he supported the bill because it would avoid confusion about what types of bags can be used. He said in some places across the country, governments charge a tax or fee but continue to allow use of the bags while requiring they be of a certain thickness. That puts a burden on manufacturers, he said.

The bill now moves to the full Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee.

If the legislation passes, it would only apply to local laws enacted since Jan. 1, which means Folly Beach and IOP might not be required to rescind their plastic bag bans.

Reach Maya T. Prabhu at 843-509-8933.

Maya T. Prabhu covers the Statehouse from Columbia. She previously covered city government and other topics in South Carolina and Maryland. Maya has a bachelors in English from Spelman College and a masters in journalism from the University of Maryland.