Plastic bags that shoppers use to carry groceries home from the store are an increasing menace to marine life and a general litter problem across South Carolina, say some scientists and conservationists who support curbing the use of the handy carriers.
Many sea creatures eat plastic bags, or the remnants of the bags, that get into the ocean, thinking the floating trash is food. That then clogs their digestive systems, which can kill animals or reduce their abilities to grow and reproduce, bag critics contend. Toxins in the fiber of plastic bags also threaten sea life, they say.
Without a ban or limits on plastic bags, the ocean off South Carolina will remain fraught with unnatural perils for sea turtles, shrimp and other creatures, according to the S.C. Coastal Conservation League and the Conservation Voters of South Carolina, two leading environmental organizations.
“Single-use plastic bags are a serious problem,” the Conservation League’s Katie Zimmerman said. “For the most part, they’re not a necessary product anymore, and they’re very outdated. But they manage to get everywhere.’’
Banning or limiting plastic bags, however, has plenty of detractors. Boosters of the plastic bag industry say industrial plants that produce the bags provide hundreds of jobs and pump up the economy of South Carolina and other states. And, they note, many people depend on the bags to carry an array of products bought at stores.
“We are taking some existing companies that provide jobs in our state and now looking at potential ways to hurt their business and to me that is ridiculous,’’ state Rep. Eric Bedingfield said. “It’s a free country. People .... can make their own decisions about what bag to use.’’
Bedingfield, R-Greenville, and House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, introduced legislation this year that would protect the plastic bag industry from cities and counties that want to curb the use of the bags. Lucas, who could not be reached Monday, represents an area of the state that is home to Novolex, a national corporation that employs 5,000 people across the country at 37 facilities.
The company’s plant in Hartsville contributes $34.6 million to South Carolina’s economy, according to the American Progressive Bag Alliance, an industry group. The alliance, in correspondence sent to lawmakers, said 200 jobs at four facilities in South Carolina are threatened by plans to ban or tax plastic bags. The industry group claims that a ban on plastic bags in Seattle, Wash., resulted in an up to 200 percent increase for businesses that had to switch to other carryout “alternatives.’’
At this point, the Lucas-Bedingfield bill faces an uphill struggle since it has plenty of opposition and would have to pass the Legislature before the session ends in little more than a month. The legislation, which drew a crowd of opponents last week to a committee meeting in Columbia, has not been approved by the House or the Senate.
Zimmerman said her organization hopes to keep it that way because the bill would make it harder to protect marine life from the perils of plastic bags. She said plastic bags also are a concern because they are major sources of litter that is affecting the landscape from the coast to the Upstate.
The legislation was introduced after the Isle of Palms passed a ban on some types of plastic bags. Several other coastal communities are examining the issue. Similar bills to limit bans on plastic bags have been introduced in other states, with varying success.
John Weinstein, a biology professor at The Citadel who has studied the effects of plastics on marine life, said sea turtles feed on jellyfish, but turtles can’t always distinguish between the bags and their natural prey. Plastic bags eaten by turtles “block the gut of the sea turtle and the sea turtle eventually dies,’’ he said. The primary species of sea turtle in South Carolina, the loggerhead, is a federally protected species.
Weinstein said plastic bags are breaking down into smaller particles, like some other forms of plastic, and being consumed by small sea animals that are important food sources for larger types of marine life, such as fish. Consuming plastics mistaken for natural food has similar impacts on small creatures, such as grass shrimp, he said. Over time, exposure to plastics could lower reproduction rates or even kill the shrimp that thrive in salt marshes, he said. Some freshwater species also are being impacted by plastics, he said.
He conceded the issue is a thorny one to resolve because “plastic has become so ingrained in our society.’’ But Weinstein said local communities should continue attacking the problem.
“I’m a firm believer in grassroots efforts,’’ he said.