County Council members propose ban on plastic grocery bags

Lexington County is weighing a ban on plastic shopping bags amid caution that the step would be largely symbolic and probably controversial.

Some County Council members are promoting the idea as a major step toward reducing litter and keeping Lake Murray, the lower Saluda and Edisto rivers and streams that feed them clean and healthy.

“How can you say no with the lake and rivers all around us?” Councilwoman Erin Long Bergeson of Chapin said.

The proposal is under consideration even though County Administrator Joe Mergo noted that the impact wouldn’t be significant initially. Most retail hubs are in the 14 municipalities that would not be subject to any rules set by county leaders, he told council members.

But supporters said adoption of the ban would encourage communities to follow suit. “It would send a strong message,” said Councilman Darrell Hudson of Lexington, who also represents part of the Gilbert area.

The proposal also promises to set off a tug-of-war with business groups who have fought adoption of the ban elsewhere.

No one knows how many stores in the county now use the bags. There is no county business license, although about two-thirds of communities in the county have that requirement as a condition for a firm to operate.

But unofficial estimates by various commercial experts suggest there are about 22,000 businesses in the 758-square-mile county. Those projections don’t spell out how many are retailers who typically package shoppers’ purchases in plastic bags.

About 150 businesses in Batesburg-Leesville – about two of every seven – appear to be retailers likely to use plastic bags, according to Patricia Saeed, who oversees business licenses at Town Hall.

Environmental groups call the ban a way to eliminate a major pollutant of roads, waterways and oceans because the bags do not decompose easily. Bags instead often end up as litter, torn into tiny particles in drinking water, clog storm drains and cling together to create large trash rafts in oceans, advocates of the ban say

Business groups, on the other hand, say the idea will drive up their costs and be burdensome for shoppers.

Some community leaders in the Batesburg-Leesville area are taking a wait-and-see approach to the proposed ban. “It’s in conversation,” County Councilman Larry Brigham said. “I don’t know the direction it will take. If you are concerned that it’s needed for the environment, that can give it momentum.”

Mayor Lancer Shull, who takes reusable bags when he’s shopping, isn’t sure about imposing a lifestyle change. “I understand the appeal [of the ban], but you have to consider the impact on businesses,” he said. “It’s got to be looked at from all sides.”

Local business leaders are starting to look at the idea but need time to assess it, said Mike Taylor, president of the town Chamber of Commerce. “We need to understand it better and consider alternatives,” he said.

So far, 17 communities and counties in South Carolina have approved a ban, including Camden and Arcadia Lakes in the Midlands. Neighboring Richland County has given initial approval to the idea, requiring stores to use either bags that are reusable or made of recycled paper.

Business groups are pushing back, asking the Legislature to halt the bag bans and nullify those adopted. State Senator Shane Massey, an Edgefield Republican who represents western Lexington County as well, is concerned about stores facing a patchwork of varying requirements for packing merchandise, saying consistency is better.

That repeal effort is supported by an estimated $88,000 in lobbying by the industry-backed American Progressive Bag Alliance in the last two years, according to reports submitted to the General Assembly.

Story by Tim Flach / Posted on August 1, 2019