Last week, the City of Isle of Palms unanimously passed first reading of an ordinance to prohibit single-use plastic bags by business establishments within the municipality’s boundaries. The ordinance is an excellent first step toward addressing dangerous marine debris, sending the valiant message that the City of Isle of Palms does not want businesses operating within its boundaries to be responsible for the decimation of marine life.
One is hard-pressed to find an entity that does not understand that plastic bags pose a serious problem to sea turtles and other marine wildlife. But readers of The Post and Courier did have the opportunity to read some statements by the senior vice president of sustainability and environmental policy for Novolex. If you are not familiar with this company, it is the entity that owns, among several other corporations, South Carolina’s Hilex Poly, one of the nation’s largest producers of plastic bags.
It is also worth noting that plastics companies recently contributed about $1.2 million toward a referendum campaign in California to attempt to overturn that state’s plastic bag ban. The largest donation was more than half a million dollars and came from Hilex Poly.
South Carolina has thousands of volunteers devoting their time and energy to protecting sea turtles (one of several species harmed by single use plastic bags), and even thousands more participating in litter sweeps, yet Novolex wants us to ignore that investment and instead place our confidence in the plastic bag recycling drop-off points at retailers. Novolex’s senior vice president did not mention how many plastic bags actually get recycled in his op-ed, but the market is relatively limited. On Novolex’s outreach website to keep plastic bags a part of our daily lives, “the recycling rate of polyethylene bags, sacks and wraps in 2010 was 14.7 percent.” It does not parse out what portion of that 14.7 percent is actually single-use plastic bags.
It seems to be a prevalent statement that we all should “reuse and recycle,” but let’s not forget the first part of that mantra, and arguably the most important, which is “reduce.” A plastic bag ban will reduce the amount of plastic coming directly from the Isle of Palms, and will also begin to help citizens understand the damage marine debris can cause. And that awareness will spread. Recent studies in Charleston waters reveal the presence of microfibers in a variety of marine life, including oysters, one of Charleston’s signature seafood items.
Further, the waste picture in the Pacific and Atlantic becomes clearer, and more alarming, every month. We know that there are waste patches larger than the state of Texas, which essentially constitute a soup of plastic items. Marine life from across the spectrum, from microscopic organisms at the base of the food chain, to pelagic birds like albatross, to dolphins and whales, are ingesting these toxic materials.
The Charleston region is working to make waste management as progressive as possible, but the simple fact is that we all must reduce our waste. Reusing and recycling are not enough. Think of all of the recent debates over where to site new recycling facilities, and where to expand landfills. Then think of the population increases our region faces. We cannot continue to produce and use at our current rate, and so we must take steps to reduce our waste now.
The impacts of plastic bag use are serious, and range from the destruction of machinery at municipal recycling facilities, to the degradation of municipal compost, to the strangling of marine species, to the prevalence of tiny fragments of plastic that have broken down over years in our waterways and now work through food webs and ultimately poison us.
There is no reason to continue producing or utilizing single use plastic bags. Quite simply, these destructive items are a scourge across the globe and an outdated product.
The City of Isle of Palms should be commended for taking the first step in our state towards committing to the health of all residents and visitors, including those who may swim to shore. Municipalities all over
South Carolina should follow suit.
Katie Zimmerman is director of air, water and public health programs for the Coastal Conservation League.