A plastic foam container or plastic bag left carelessly at the beach can linger in the ocean forever, said Charleston Waterkeeper Andrew Wunderley.
When the discarded debris sloshes around in a marsh, creek or the ocean, it immediately begins breaking down. Sunlight and bacteria exposure help further the process until eventually — in just a matter of weeks — those cups, plates and bags are no longer recognizable.
“At that point, it’s absolutely impossible to get it out of the water,” Wunderley said. “They can be anything from microscopic, little bits of plastic to stuff the size of sand grains to little bits and pieces you can see in your hand.”
Such microplastics can then easily become dinner for fish, shrimp, oysters, birds, turtles and other marine life. Turtles, for instance, can mistake a wet, stringy plastic bag that hasn’t yet broken down all the way for a jellyfish, one of its primary food sources, Wunderley said.
“Turtles and other wildlife can actually suffocate from the plastic debris, but they can also get an impaction in their gut. They’ll take in this plastic material and actually fill their stomach up with plastic material instead of food,” he said. “Then, because they can’t pass the material easily, they’ll essentially stop eating and starve to death.”
Folly Beach City Council passed two ordinances recently designed to keep those plastic bags and foam containers out of the ocean and out of the hands of the city’s business customers.
As of Oct. 18, single-use plastic bags, balloons and all plates, bowls, cups, containers, lids, trays, coolers, ice chests and similar items that are made of plastic foam are no longer allowed on Folly Beach.
Additionally, businesses on Folly Beach will no longer be allowed to sell or provide those items, except for balloons, to customers beginning Jan. 1.
Some items are excluded from the bans, such as laundry dry cleaning bags; door-hanger bags; newspaper bags; packages of multiple bags for uses such as garbage, pet waste or yard waste; prescription drug bags; bags that contain unwrapped foods or bakery goods; and bags used to store nuts, grains, candy, small hardware items, frozen foods, meat, flowers and potted plants.
City administrator Spencer Wetmore said few people have complained so far about the ordinances.
“I have found that most of the complaints that we have gotten have been based on misinformation — so people who didn’t understand that dog waste bags would still be allowed or that trash bags are still allowed and plastic cups are still allowed,” Wetmore said. “It’s a really targeted, specific thing: plastic carry-out bags, Styrofoam coolers and Styrofoam takeout containers.”
The Folly Association of Business, Coastal Conservation League and Surfrider Foundation teamed up about a year ago to begin work on the business ordinance, which passed unanimously Sept. 13. The beach ban was introduced separately and passed in mid-October.
“What we like to say is it wasn’t the government telling us what to do; it was the businesses telling the government what we want to see happen,” said Lewis Dodson, president of the Folly Association of Business and owner of The Drop In Bar and Deli.
Dodson said his Center Street restaurant was the first on Folly Beach to begin recycling, about seven years ago.
“We had separate garbage cans, and we would drive them three miles down the road to the James Island recycling plant and drop them off. We did that like three to four times a week,” he said. “We’d load up my business partner’s truck with all of our recycling and head down the street. We did that out of the goodness of our hearts, and it wasn’t until after a year when we got our solid waste garbage bill that we realized we’re saving about $2,000 a year just in recycling.”
The Drop In Bar and Deli has never used plastic foam containers and has recycled its plastics from the beginning, but Dodson wasn’t aware until this year of the negative impact of plastic bags on the environment. The restaurant uses them for to-go orders and deliveries, something he expects to change this month with paper bags.
Dodson said he and other businesses pushed for the ordinance as a way of protecting their business investments.
“I’ve got a restaurant on Folly Beach. I intend to be in that industry for as long as I can, and our greatest asset at this location is the beach and the ocean in general. ... Without the ocean, I probably don’t have a business out here. Without a clean beach, I probably don’t have a business out here,” Dodson said.
He’s also not shy about sharing his personal love for seafood.
“I love fish. I like to eat fish, shrimp, lobster, crab — love them and would like to keep them around for as long as possible,” Dodson said. “If it takes a little extra to do that, then I’m fine with keeping our oceans and beaches as clean as we can. It’s a small step, but hopefully small steps lead to big steps.”
By the time the ordinance made it to the City Council, Dodson said all of his association’s members were on board. The businesses also had the support of Councilman D.J. Rich, co-owner of Planet Follywood bar and restaurant.
“If we don’t have pristine shorelines, our beaches, our environment, our seafood and things of that sort, we’re going to lose out because our only business is tourism,” Rich said. “So we need to be proactive to protect our scenery and our wildlife.”
Rich said shifting to more environmentally friendly packaging will make a small impact on his company’s bottom line, but it will be worth it long term.
“I am not the biggest conservationist in the world, by far, but it affects everybody differently, and it’s totally a regional thing,” he said. “One of our huge assets, our biggest feature is our waterways — whether it’s the environmental aspect, seafood, whatever it is, it helps Charleston maintain that No. 1 destination in the world. So if we don’t start taking steps to protect that, we’re only going to fall backwards.”
Bert’s Market on Folly Beach also will be switching its packaging before the Jan. 1 deadline. General manager Jeremy Hammond said the store already dropped plastic bags for paper bags in April in anticipation of the ordinance, but foam cups are still available for sodas and peanuts. He said he’s working on a paper solution.
“I’m sure once people fall into the groove, it’ll be just fine,” he said.
The Isle of Palms already bans plastic bags from the beach, but Folly Beach is now the first in the state to also ban plastic foam products, said Wetmore, the city’s administrator. Because it’s not a common ordinance, Folly Beach is trying to get the word out to citizens and visitors.
“From a staff perspective, our focus is really on education between now and Jan. 1. We haven’t written any tickets or warnings at this point,” Wetmore said.
The city will add signs to beach entrances and has updated the paperwork that goes in all rental houses to include the new rules.
Once the ordinance is being enforced, businesses that violate it will receive a written warning. The penalty will be a fine up to $100 for the first violation, $200 for the second violation within a year period and $500 for each additional violation. Repeated violations may also result in the business’ license being suspended or revoked, the ordinance says.
Beachgoers who bring the banned items to the beach could face a $500 fine or 30 days in jail.
“It’s going to be a challenge because our population turns over every week in the summer. So it’s going to be an uphill battle for sure,” Wetmore said. “But that’s where our police officers come into play. Our police officers aren’t out looking to write tickets for this. They’re looking to inform people and ultimately achieve compliance.”
This story originally appeared in the Nov. 14, 2016, print edition of the Charleston Regional Business Journal.