Six people spoke during a public hearing Tuesday night on Camden City Councilman Jeffrey Graham’s proposed ordinance to ban single-use plastic bags in the city. The six evenly split on being for or against the proposal, which would ban providing single-use plastic carryout bags at any city facility, city-sponsored event or any event held on city property; and ban any business establishment within the city limits from providing single-use plastic carryout bags to its customers.
Instead, the proposed ordinance states businesses would be “strongly encouraged” to prominently display advisories to customers about the benefits of reusable carryout bags, and would allow them to provide, or even sell, reusable carryout bags to its customers.
The proposed ordinance defines a single-use carryout bag as “a bag provided by a business establishment to a customer, typically at the point of sale, for the purpose of transporting purchases, which is made predominantly of plastic derived from either petroleum or a biologically based source.” It acknowledges that some such bags include ones that are compostable and biodegradable.
Reusable carryout bags are defined as those “specifically designed and manufactured for multiple use” and must:
• display, in a highly visible manner on the exterior, language describing its ability to be reused and recycled;
• has a handle, unless the bag of less than 14 inches high and 8 inches wide;
• is constructed of cloth or other washable fabric, recyclable plastic, or recyclable paper.
The ordinance would also set up a series of penalties for violations. Businesses will receive one written warning. Afterward, the first official violation would be penalized with a $100 fine; $200 for a second violation within a 12-month period of the first; and $500 for each additional violation within a 12-month period of the first. Each day a violation continues would constitute a separate offense. Repeated violations could even lead to a suspension or revocation of a business license.
Marietta Gordon spoke first during the public hearing, saying she is very concerned about the environment.
“There’s an island of plastic now circulating in one of our oceans and plastic bags contribute a great deal to that,” Gordon said. “So, I’m for the passage of this law and I have found that it’s not that troublesome because for the past few years I have used (reusable) bags that I keep in my car. When I go to the grocery store, I just take them out and take them in, and they’re much more convenient than plastic bags because they put about one or two things in the plastic bags and then you have hundreds of little plastic bags (at home).”
Paula Scarborough, a member of the VisionKershaw 2030 core team and owner of Scarborough Fair inside TenEleven Galleria, came up to the podium with a variety of reusable bags. Scarborough said her thoughts on the plastic bag ban depends on what “hat” she is wearing -- Camden resident, business owner, or VisionKershaw 2030 co-author.
“I’d like to think I take pride in my home and community. I try to give back and recycle and I reduce waste. Along with having a patio garden and finding uses for old things, and going on trips around town, all bring me joy in small ways, and when I do take home single-use bags, I usually find other uses for most of them,” Scarborough said.
She then showed off some of the bags she had brought up, noting their differences and similarities, explaining that she uses both reusable and single-use bags at her business.
“What these bags all have in common is they were made in China, and they’re all subject to the new tariffs,” Scarborough said, affecting her and every consumer. “As a small business owner, I’m part of a fiercely independent group; I don’t like being told what I can and cannot do in my own space. I look at unit costs very closely because … it’s very difficult to absorb packaging costs. It’s much easier for the big box stores to pass their costs on because of their bulk buying practices. The small mom and pops can’t compete with big box stores and overnight free shipping.”
Scarborough said some reusable bags cost her 75 cents each because she’s buying in very small quantities, but cannot afford to pass the cost on to her customers.
“It’s that tight,” she said, adding that some of the examples of bags she had brought can cost up to $2.50 each to acquire.
Scarborough went on to say that a proposed single-use plastic bag ban does not surprise her, nor should it surprise the big box stores, either, and that they will all find ways to comply if the ordinance passes. However, she said there are many unanswered questions, and that she hoped there would be a long period during which warnings would be issued. Scarborough also encouraged the city and council to learn what other All-America City communities have done in terms of plastic bag bans.
“Make it a bigger part of our story; that’s what VisionKershaw’s about and that’s what All-America City is about: putting our story forward, not our ordinances and how they came about, but our story -- that we’re a community that thinks outside the bag.”
Next, Richard Clark of Speaks Oil Co. agreed plastic bags and pollution are a problem, but didn’t think enacting another law was the answer.
“My biggest fear is what kind of message are we sending to the businesses about the friendliness of the community? Education and enforcement would go a lot further,” Clark said. “It (may be) practical to carry a reusable bag into a grocery store, but we’re in the convenience store business, and in the convenience store business, most people don’t even plan to stop, much less carry a bag. They come into get a couple of drinks and a bag of chips; we put it in a plastic bag.”
Clark said he was concerned about what would be next, wondering if other ordinances would come along to make things even harder on businesses.
“If all laws that were written would solve problems, we wouldn’t have texting while driving a phone. We have a texting law in the city of Camden … statewide, but it hasn’t stopped it, has it?” Clark said, additionally asking who would enforce the ordinance and how would doing so would be funded.
He also said he could “get along” with paper bags, but there would still be litter from them.
Monument Square resident Bill Tolbert said he thinks the ban is a “great idea” explaining that he and his wife once lived in a large city that enacted one.
“I went to the grocery store precisely three times without my bags, and I walked out with a paper bag that I think I paid a nickel for,” Tolbert said, saying he keeps them in his trunk. “It’s such a habit, that when I moved to Camden three years ago, I didn’t even think about it … folks will see us going in with our bags, dump them in there and head out.”
Tolbert said that as a consumer, he understands that there might be a period of adjustment if the ban is enacted, but that as a resident, that once he stopped using plastic bags, he realized when he went to other cities that plastic bags were “everywhere.”
“I was proud of our town for having taken this step. It seemed like such an inconsequential thing to do as a consumer, and yet I thought it made a big impact not only just visually but in the pride for our town,” he said.
That finished comments from those who had signed up to speak. Mayor Alfred Mae Drakeford asked if there were any other comments from the floor. That prompted two more speakers, starting with Kershaw County Clean Community Commission member Tom Webb.
Webb started by explaining that plastic bags are made from hydrocarbons -- oil -- and can be burned.
“They are not ‘forever’ in the environment; ultraviolet light destroys them in a year or two. In direct sunlight, they just powder away and are gone,” he said, adding that there are multiple uses for them, including picking up trash off the side of the road. “And there’s so much more out there in the way of litter. It’s not plastic bags; there’s cups and bottles and water bottles like the ones you’re drinking out of. Are we going to ban those? Where is it going to stop?”
Webb suggested that a better way to deal with the problem was “persuasion” and education rather than laws. He also took issue with one of Gordon’s comments.
“She spoke about the big mass of plastic that’s swirling around out in the Pacific. That doesn’t come from us; that’s Asia and India. They have even less of a regard for the environment than we do,” Webb claimed.
James Eastman also came to the podium at Drakeford’s request. He said he recently moved to Fair Street from Columbia and is the owner of a local fast food franchise.
“I moved here about six months ago and wasn’t very excited, admittedly. I’m a big city person and wasn’t really interested in a small town. I consider myself moderately progressive, but when I read about this on Facebook, I saw about 300 comments. I look around and I see about 20 people here,” Eastman said. “So, does it really matter? Of course it really matters. The environment is failing. You can believe what you want, but the environment is failing. The big swirling mass, is a real thing … where it comes from doesn’t matter, we all need to do our own personal part to make it a better place for future generations.”
And in response to Webb’s question about where things stop, Eastman said, “I would propose, where does it start? It has to start somewhere. Plastic bags do not disintegrate overnight; it takes upwards of hundreds -- I even read an article that it can take 1,000 years to disintegrate.”
He also suggested that people buying just a few drinks and chips at a store might not need to use a bag at all.
“I am very proud now that I am part of a community where you can be one of those progressive places in the state of South Carolina,” Eastman said.
If council decides to move forward with the ordinance, it could take up first reading as early as its March 12 meeting.
In other business, council unanimously passed first reading of an ordinance changing the zoning at 401 and 403 Dicey Ford Road from R-15 residential to limited business district, and a resolution authorizing the consumption of beer and wine at the upcoming South Carolina Waterfowl Association banquet.