A healthy environment is in the bag: the Lowcountry and plastics

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Delaney Arroyo, 8, runs after a stray plastic bag blowing along the beach on Hilton Head Island. PHOTO BY CAROL WEIR

If you pick up a plastic bag blowing down the beach, you will have made a difference.

This spring, local legislators and some citizens in Beaufort County have drawn attention to plastic bags, in part based on mounting evidence that micro-particles from decomposing plastic end up in the fish and shellfish we eat.

State representatives Weston Newton and Bill Herbkersman last month worked to block a House bill that would have prevented local jurisdictions from passing any measure to regulate the sale or use of plastic grocery bags or other plastic containers.

Newton said he voted against state control of the plastic bag issue for two reasons: care for the environment and home rule, meaning the right of local governments to determine what is best for their communities.

"This issue looks very different on the coast than it does in the Upstate," he said.

Local efforts to limit plastic bags include a petition asking Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling to limit the sale of single-use plastic bags by retailers within city limits.

At press time, the petition on Change.org had 553 signatures. Options mentioned in the petition include banning the sale of plastic bags, charging a fee to consumers of plastic bags, or replacing traditional plastic bags with biodegradable ones.

"I think people need encouragement to change," said Mariah Robinson, one of the petition's creators. "Especially if our local government helps, we can create a culture of bringing our own bags."

On Hilton Head Island, the Town of Hilton Head Island's Comprehensive Plan includes language about bags. It states: "The goal is to explore the opportunity to implement a plastic bag fee for shopping establishments."

Hilton Head's leaders recognize that the approximately 2.5 million people who visit the island annually probably won't travel with reusable shopping bags. Suggestions for dealing with the bag issue on the island include creating an official souvenir cloth bag with an attractive logo to be sold locally as an alternative to plastic bags.

Also, since many shoppers in resort communities buy only a few items at a time, cashiers could be trained to ask: "Do you need a bag?" instead of automatically placing items in single-use plastic bags.

In Bluffton, Mayor Lisa Sulka said of limiting plastic bags: "Long ago it was brought up and there was no interest."

This might have changed. Bluffton resident Cheryl McCarthy said that reducing plastic litter, including bags, was important to her and to others she knows.

But it's also important to consider all sides of the issue, including how restrictions on plastic bags would affect local businesses, she said.

Ordinances in Folly Beach and Isle of Palms restrict the use of plastic bags.

"Plastic bags wash directly into the salt marsh and impact our local environment," said Dr. Chris Marsh of the Lowcountry Institute. Plastic kills marine life who mistake it for food, and toxins from decomposing plastic take hundreds of years to totally disintegrate.

"How can we minimize plastics all the way around and particularly keep them out of the waterways? Let's take it in manageable bits," he said.

Marsh encouraged local leaders to engage the business community in discussions, build consensus and give all stakeholders time to think about alternatives to plastic.

As part of Earth Week (April 17-22), the Coastal Conservation League is asking local grocery stores and retail shops to commit to using reusable paper bags through that week and to prominently display reusable bags if they sell them.

For more information, call 843-522-1800 or rikkip@scccl.org.

Carol Weir of Bluffton is a career journalist and teacher.

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