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Charleston businesses won't be allowed to use plastic bags, straws, or foam containers starting January 2020

"A lot of thought has gone into this," mayor says


Charleston joined its closest neighbors Tuesday night as the latest municipality to ban plastic bags in an environmental effort strongly supported by the city's residents and business owners.

In a vote of 11-2, Charleston City Council agreed to prohibit businesses, including restaurants and grocery stores, from selling or providing single-use plastic bags, polystyrene or plastic foam service ware, and non-recyclable products.

Charleston is the largest city in the state to pass such a ban.

Councilmen James Lewis and Robert Mitchell, who represent downtown neighborhoods above Calhoun Street, voted against it.

Initially set to take effect on Dec. 1, 2019, the date was changed to Jan. 1, 2020 at Tuesday's meeting.

Echoing some of the most contentious issues City Council has tackled lately (the Calhoun monument, a police audit for racial bias, short-term rentals), the proposal drew a crowd of interested residents at both Council meetings where it was discussed. More than 60 people signed up to speak Tuesday, with only a handful of them arguing against the ban, some for groups like the American Progressive Bag Alliance, which represents plastic manufacturers and lobbies against similar bans throughout the country.

Michael Shemtov, a restaurateur who co-owns local Mellow Mushroom franchises, bemoaned industry efforts to disparage the ban.

"I'm fully in favor of the plastic bag ban," he told Council. "What you're gonna hear tonight is a bunch of citizens who came on their own time, who are not getting paid."

Charleston's ban singles out products that are not accepted by Charleston County's recycling program. Plastic bags and Styrofoam packaging are explicitly rejected in the county's recycling guide, along with food waste and household garbage. Plastic straws are not mentioned.

"They are too small to properly recycle and fall through the cracks in the sorting equipment," clarified county spokesman Shawn Smetana in an email to the City Paper.
Laundry and newspaper bags; bags used by nonprofits, doctors, or pharmacists; bags used for garbage or pet waste; egg cartons; drink lids; cutlery; and plastic straws needed due to medical or physical conditions are all exempt from the ban.

A 2016 survey conducted by a city committee found that "businesses strongly support a ban," and that 83.8 percent of the 4,733 citizens who answered "would support a ban on single-use plastic bags."

Meanwhile, the nearby coastal communities of Folly Beach, Isle of Palms, Mt. Pleasant, and Sullivan's Island have already passed their own bans.

Mt. Pleasant's ban, which takes effect in April 2019, bans single-use plastic bags as well as foam containers. Last week, Sullivan's Island's town council unanimously approved a ban on plastic bags, straws, and foam containers. It is set to take effect this weekend.

Charleston's Resiliency and Sustainability Advisory Committee previously cited numbers from Folly Beach showing that, after the town implemented its ban in 2016, the number of plastic bags collected in beach sweeps decreased by almost 80 percent. On Tuesday night, committee head Katie McCain added that plastic bags have been found stuck to storm drains in Charleston, which could prevent proper drainage in flooded areas.

"This matter has been debated for some time through our resiliency committee," said Mayor John Tecklenburg. "We reached out to grocery stores, talked to a number of you, included that every store would have to provide a free bag of some kind to customers. A lot of thought has gone into this."
Councilman Bill Moody, for one, thought that more had to be done to address what he considered the real culprit: littering. City lawyer Susan Herdina advised that Council member could look at strengthening the city's existing litter laws separately, but saw little reason why that should be tied to a ban on plastic bags.

Charleston City Councilman Bill Moody - FILE
  • File
  • Charleston City Councilman Bill Moody
Councilman Robert Mitchell, who ended up voting against the ban, said he wanted more time to talk to his constituents about it.

"Even if this ordinance passes, I still would like to see a committee, or whomever, reach out to each neighborhood association, because I know a lot of this is online, but a lot of people I represent don’t know," he said.

The possibility that lawmakers in Columbia could defang the city on the issue loomed large above Council. After Mt. Pleasant banned plastic bags in February, the state House advanced a bill that would have prevented cities and towns from enacting similar bans. The bill stalled before the end of this year's legislative session.

"The legislative session starts in 42 days," warned Emily Cedzo of the Coastal Conservation League during the public comment section.

According to the newly-passed rules, the city's director of public service may exempt a business for an extra year, or until 2021, if the business proves that the ban would create an "undue hardship or practical difficulty."

A negative decision may then be appealed to the city's Public Works and Utilities Committee.

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