South Carolina lawmakers are considering taking away the ability of local governments to ban or tax bags and other single-use plastics. But mayors from some of the state's largest cities and coastal towns are pushing back strongly.
In a debate that's being echoed in state legislatures around the country, leaders from Charleston and other cities are protesting the move to shift power over single-use plastics away from them.
They came to a legislative hearing recently to argue that their local bag and foam polystyrene bans are popular, and that they protect both the environment and key industries like tourism and seafood.
But the plastics bag industry said decisions about single-use plastic belong with state lawmakers, instead of a patchwork of different rules city-by-city, and urged state officials to push ahead.
The American Progressive Bag Alliance argued that the state needs to rein in local ordinances that it said are some of the most restrictive in the country and have turned coastal parts of South Carolina into a hotbed of debate on single-use plastics.
South Carolina's conversation mirrors that in other legislatures — 11 states currently have laws preventing local government restrictions on plastics. Five more, including Oklahoma and North Dakota, are considering it, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
APBA, which represents the plastic bag industry, argued in a March 20 state Senate hearing that bags are a very small part of the state's litter and municipal waste — less than 1 percent — and that bans, while they may be well intentioned, would not make a dent in overall litter.
APBA said smarter policies should focus on boosting recycling, like in-store plastic bag and film recycling programs. And it suggested that state officials are more likely to make better, more scientific decisions around waste policy.
"Any of these policies should be fact-based, science-based, rather than emotion driven," said Matt Seaholm, executive director of Washington-based APBA. "That's unfortunately often what we see, especially at a local level."
Will Haynie, mayor of Mount Pleasant, S.C., took issue with that. He told state senators that local governments have looked at the science and gotten extensive public input, and state legislators should respect that.
"We wanted to be here not to debate the thickness of plastics bags, but to ask you to respect our right to govern and to represent our 87,000 citizens the way you represent your districts in the state of South Carolina," said Haynie, who noted that his town is the fourth-largest city in the state.
"We have done the science, we have heard from our fisherman and our shrimping fleet, that plastic litter is a problem," he said, calling it a competitiveness issue for the seafood industry. "If we don't have the reputation of having the purest, cleanest seafood out of the waters of South Carolina, it does not bode well for an industry that is very near and dear to our hearts."