by Adam Manno
A city-wide ban on plastic bags, straws, and foam containers advanced in Charleston City Council after a robust debate between city officials Tuesday night.
If passed, the ordinance would make Charleston the largest city in the state to adopt a bag ban after similar efforts from coastal communities stretching from Surfside Beach to Beaufort County.
The ban would go into effect a year after ratification to give businesses enough time to adjust to the new rules. Businesses could file for an extension if they prove that switching to sustainable methods would pose an undue burden.
During the public comments section, a sea of hands went up when Mayor John Tecklenburg asked supporters of the ban to identify themselves. Only one man raised his hand in opposition.
"This will pass," said Justin Ferira, a real estate developer and a member of the Surfrider Foundation, one of the main groups that have promoted "Strawless Summer" campaigns for the past two years. "I ask you to be pioneers and step up and get that done tonight."
Katie McCain, the head of the city's Resiliency and Sustainability Advisory Committee, pointed out that Charleston County's recycling plants don't accept plastic bags.
Efforts like the South Carolina Aquarium's Litter Free Digital Journal tally the amount of debris found in Charleston's waters during beach sweeps.
"We're trying to remove those common items that are picked up in sweeps regularly," McCain said.
A 2016 survey conducted by the city showed that businesses and residents "strongly support" a ban, but not all Council members were immediately onboard.
"We don't have a plastic problem that this is gonna solve. We have a litter problem and it is horrible," said Councilman Bill Moody, who launched into an anecdote about finding trash, including Chick-Fil-A Styrofoam cups, on the ground on his way to a bakery that morning.
"This is more than a feel good measure," Tecklenburg responded. "There are results that are being generated by putting these ordinances into place."
In Folly Beach, the number of plastic bags collected in beach sweeps decreased by almost 80 percent after the town enacted a similar ban in 2016. McCain pointed to a map of other nearby municipalities that have either enacted or considered plastic bag bans, including Mt. Pleasant, Sullivan's Island, and Isle of Palms.
"You can see there's kind of a hole in the middle there," McCain said. "That's us. That's the City of Charleston."
Isle of Palms became the state's first beach community to ban plastic bags in 2015. Folly Beach banned single-use plastic containers in 2016. This year, Hilton Head Island and Surfside Beach followed suit. Mt. Pleasant banned plastic bags in February, which triggered the state House to advance a bill first introduced in 2017 that would have prevented local municipalities from enacting similar bans. The bill stalled before the end of this year's legislative session.
"Even though it may not be perfect, I thought it was incumbent on us to consider this measure before the next legislative session starts," Tecklenburg warned.
Councilman James Lewis worried that the ordinance could hurt small businesses, which might see their costs rise by switching to paper bags and other recyclable materials.
"Maybe it needs to go back in the oven until we get it cooked just right," said Councilman Marvin Wagner.
The ban moved on to second reading, with Lewis voting against it and Moody abstaining. Councilman Harry Griffin was absent.
"Tonight’s decision is the result of nearly three years of thoughtful study by city officials and community partners, who worked diligently to gather feedback from residents and local business owners on a possible ordinance," said Coastal Conservation League Program Director Emily Cedzo in an email to supporters Tuesday night. "It’s clear council members want to roll their sleeves up and get to work on the ordinance’s language, making additional adjustments to ensure its effectiveness."