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Bill to remove city control over plastic bags on hold for the year

Councils in two coastal cities have taken action to ban certain types of plastic bags from their communities.

A bill introduced in the South Carolina House of Representatives had threatened to strip all cities and towns of their right to regulate plastic bags. But in March, the House voted to delay until next year further consideration of the legislation, H3529.

Before the vote, Rep. Cezar McKnight of Kingstree warned his colleagues that passing the bill would undermine local elected officials’ ability to do the job their constituents elected them to do.

“Those local governments decided upon themselves — which they’re constitutionally able to do — to introduce legislation in their body and enact their ordinances,” said McKnight, part of the bipartisan opposition to the bill. “Who are we to stop that? What’s next? … Let’s be careful about the path we start down.”

In 2015, residents packed an Isle of Palms City Council meeting and urged their local officials to address a problem they saw as threatening the natural environment.

They told councilmembers that the community’s economy and quality of life depend on maintaining clean beaches that draw visitors and investment. After city leaders spoke with local businesses, the Isle of Palms council passed an ordinance prohibiting the distribution of certain plastic bags while encouraging greater use of reusable containers through public signage and business outreach.

In 2016, the City of Folly Beach was approached by its local business association regarding the same issue and decided to pass an ordinance similar to Isle of Palms. Like Isle of Palms’ plastic bag ordinance, the Folly Beach ordinance banned a specific type of plastic bag while specifically permitting the continued use of other plastic bags within grocery stores, pharmacies, restaurants, etc. Both cities’ ordinances also contained hardship exceptions that would allow a business to apply for a temporary reprieve from the ordinance requirements.

“Folly’s ordinance prohibiting plastic bags was an important step to protect our local environment,” said Folly Beach Mayor Tim Goodwin, whose city’s ban on the distribution of bags took effect at the beginning of 2017.

“We hope home rule will prevail to allow municipalities to continue to make these types of local decisions.”
However, H3529, which was introduced in January, would remove local governments’ authority to engage in the kind of local legislative process seen in Isle of Palms and Folly Beach, and reserve that authority for the S.C. General Assembly only.

At least one similar attempt to strip cities and towns’ decision-making powers on plastic bag restrictions was made in the House in 2016. But the bill, H4793, did not move forward.

The S.C. Coastal Conservation League and the Municipal Association expressed concerns about the most recent legislation, arguing that access to and enjoyment of those areas are a boon to residents, tourists, and the local and state economy.

“When local government is able to take the lead on assessing problems, gathering data, and finding potential solutions in the community, everyone wins,” said Katie Zimmerman, air, water and public health director of the Coastal Conservation League.

“As an example, Greenville’s restored Reedy River is most likely affected by different types of litter than the beach at Sullivan’s Island. But both of those areas certainly draw visitors who spend money in local businesses.”