Charleston City Council took a step toward banning certain plastics in the city, passing the first reading of an ordinance that would outlaw plastic bags, straws and other single-use plastics.
Though the ordinance was criticized by several council members, especially for its exemptions — District 1 Councilman Gary White Jr. pointed out that plastic utensils, laundry dry cleaning bags and newspaper bags are not included — the first reading received 10 votes, with the caveat that criticisms would be addressed by the time City Council voted on a second reading.
District 3 Councilman James Lewis Jr. voted against the ordinance, District 11 Councilman Bill Moody abstained from voting and District 10 Councilman Henry Griffin was absent.
The ordinance also had overwhelming public support, with most public comments at the meeting in favor of the plastics ban. Only a senior vice president from Hartsville-based Novolex, which makes plastic bags, among other packaging products, spoke against the ban.
“If there’s a huge movement against this ordinance, it didn’t show up,” District 7 Councilman Mike Seekings said. “If there’s a huge movement for this ordinance, it’s here.”
Charleston’s ordinance is modeled after similar single-use plastics bans in Folly Beach and Mount Pleasant. It allows for a one-year transition period between the passage of the ordinance and its effective date.
Businesses can apply for an additional year of transition if the ordinance creates “an undue burden or practical difficulty not generally applicable to other persons in similar circumstances”; specific exemptions can also be made if a business can prove a public health and safety requirement or medical necessity.
Moody said his issue is that he thinks the city has a litter problem, not a plastic problem, and that the city needs to enforce existing litter laws before passing a ban on plastics.
“I don’t want to vote against this because I think it’s important that we do something,” Moody said, adding, “I don’t want to let us off the hook by passing an ordinance and then OK, now we feel good. And that’s what this feels like to me, is feel-good.”
Lewis, who voted against, voiced concerns about enforcement of the ordinance, as well as how the ban would affect his constituents.
“They request a bag, they get a brown bag, but that brown bag doesn’t help that consumer taking his or her groceries home if they’re walking or catching the bus,” he said. “A brown bag, you can carry one or two. Plastic bags, some people have three or four around their arms.”
District 4 Councilman Robert Mitchell voted in favor but said he also had “mixed emotions” based on what the ordinance would mean for the city’s residents.
“How I look at it, when I’m voting on something, I vote on what’s going to happen for everyone in the city of Charleston — everyone,” he said.
Mitchell, who is black, said, “Most of everyone coming in tonight, I haven’t seen no one here that looks like me, that have come into this chamber tonight and said yes or no. Have they been touched? Have they been reached out to? They’re the ones using a lot of these bags.”
Mayor John Tecklenburg said the ordinance is “more than a feel-good measure. Other cities and counties have felt the same way. There are results that are being generated by putting these ordinances into place, and it is in fact banning those products that are most harmful to our environment.”
The mayor also said time is of the essence for City Council to act on the ordinance because the S.C. Legislature has been considering a ban on plastics bans. The General Assembly’s most recent effort died at the end of the most recent legislative session, but Tecklenburg said a similar bill could be reintroduced.
“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 said. “And I must say, I think Charleston knows well enough to be able to pass an ordinance or not without the Legislature basically denying home rule on us.”