Just how dangerous is plastic for marine life?
In two hours, Susan Platt said she collected almost 1,000 pieces of plastic and trash from the beach in North Myrtle Beach.
Clean-up efforts in the area have spurred a conversation among government officials about a plastic bag ban — a conversation that has swept coastal South Carolina.
Locally, Surfside Beach banned plastic bags in June. Other areas, including Hilton Head Island, Beaufort County, the Isle of Palms, Folly Beach and Bluffton have banned plastic bags from their stores and restaurants.
North Myrtle Beach, the City of Georgetown and Richland County are discussing future legislation on plastic products.
“So far it’s going good,” said Bob Childs, mayor of Surfside Beach. “I really haven’t heard any complaints at all. I think everybody has accepted it as a good practice. You’ve got to start somewhere, and I think that seems to be a good start.”
But success in other S.C. cities has officials in North Myrtle Beach doubting the effectiveness of the ban and how it would be enforced.
“To me, this is North Myrtle Beach, nine miles of beach,” said North Myrtle Beach councilwoman Nikki Fontana. “We need more than this. We need the county, we need Myrtle Beach. The state needs to be on board with this. It’s hard for our police officers to enforce this. How are we going to enforce this?”
In May, an effort to stop South Carolina cities and towns from regulating plastic products died in the statehouse. The push came from the American Progressive Bag Alliance, a national group that is fighting to save the plastic bag industry.
This summer, restaurants across the Grand Strand have joined in Strand - Strawless Summer. By June, more than 200 restaurants had joined the movement. Along the Murrells Inlet Marshwalk, several restaurants switched from plastic straws to paper ones.
Are plastic bag bans successful?
In 2015, the Isle of Palms became the first South Carolina city to ban plastic bags. Councilman Ryan Buckhannon said the ban has been great, but changes need to made in other areas of the state for the idea to really work.
“It’s a bigger picture,” Buckhannon said. “Because a lot of what we see comes from inland.”
A lot of plastic Buckhannon sees comes from Mount Pleasant, he said. In April, the area approved one of the state’s largest bans on plastic and Styrofoam, The Charleston Post and Courier reported. The ban focuses on plastic carryout bags, Styrofoam containers and plastic silverware.
In Surfside Beach, business managers said the hardest part is now over.
“We’ve adapted to it,” said Mike Byrd, manager of the Piggly Wiggly. “June was kind of rough getting used to it. We were using a lot of paper bags, the cost was getting crazy. The end of July we actually just switched to biodegradable bags.”
Marcia Rodrigues, manager of Whales Island Shop in Surfside, said at first people complained about the ban. Now, she said, few people use bags at all while shopping at the beach store.
Distributing plastic bags in the town is a criminal misdemeanor. Officers will first give out a warning before any further action is taken, Surfside Beach Police Chief Kenneth Hofmann said.
One warning has been given out since June, with a $250 fine, he said.
“It’s a complaint-driven ordinance, especially this time of year,” Hofmann said. “Officers have not been directed to hunt for businesses distributing plastic bags.”
In North Myrtle Beach, councilman Bob Cavanaugh suggested phasing in a ban rather than enforcing it immediately. The plan includes preparing businesses and residents for a ban and educating them on what it would mean for the city.
Cavanaugh suggested the city pass a resolution, saying they would commit themselves to solving the plastic problem.
“We have our waterways, our waterways that we can focus on,” Cavanaugh said. “Our effort is to clean up what we’ve got. Don’t get lost in the big picture.”
During the meeting, Fontana suggested the ban would not have an impact on the larger plastic problem that spans to the Pacific Ocean and worldwide.
But for Fontana, the problem boils down to one question — how do we stop tourists and visitors from bringing plastic bags to the beach?
“Are we gonna stop everybody at the bridge?” she asked.
What are the alternatives?
While many local businesses have switched over to paper or biodegradable bags, Robert Kimmel, an associate professor at Clemson University, said those may not be the best options.
“Paper bags are definitely not a better alternative,” Kimmel said. “There’s no question about it. The best thing for people to use is reusable bags, but there’s a huge, huge excess of reusable bags. Everybody has tons of them.
“If you’re not going to use them over and over and over again religiously every week, then you should be using single-use plastic bags and recycling them.”
Kimmel said a better alternative to banning plastic bags is for local governments to educate residents on products.
“I think it’s having individual conversations,” Platt said. “I would say to my parents or whatever, oh, we don’t use plastic bags at the beach because they could hurt our environment. And I think that it starts there, it starts with the rental companies, it starts with just a dialogue with everyone.”