Hilton Head tests the waters for a ban on plastic bags

Shae Dalrymple


Hilton Head tests the waters for a ban on plastic bags

A display at Coastal Provisions Company shows the similarity between a typical plastic bag in water, left, and a jellyfish replica, right, which can be confusing to sea creatures. PHOTO BY SHAE DALRYMPLE

The Town of Hilton Head Island conducted a public survey last month, and results indicate citizens are on board for a ban on plastic bags at retail businesses.

However, a Statehouse bill could leave that plan "dead in the water," according to a proponent of the ban, Joanne Voulelis. The measure failed by one vote in March and will be up for reconsideration in January, meaning the town would need to enact the law before that in order to retain "home rule" on the issue.

Rikki Parker, South Coast Project Manager for the Coastal Conservation League, presented a draft of the ban to the Hilton Head Island Planning Commission June 21 that was based on similar measures already implemented on Folly Beach and Isle of Palms.

About 71 percent of those who responded to the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce's survey conducted June 26 agreed that plastic bags should be banned.

With Americans using more than 100 billion plastic bags each year, the material and the chemicals associated with it have been accumulating in our oceans at alarming rates. Each one of those bags can take up to 1,000 years to decompose.

When marine animals like sea turtles and fish mistake bags for food, they can die or ingest harmful elements that could be eaten by humans farther down the food chain.

Opponents argue that the law would hurt businesses, but, as the survey revealed, many of the supporters of the ban in Hilton Head include retailers like Coastal Provisions Company in Shelter Cove, part of SERG Restaurant Group, the largest employer on the island.

The store has incorporated a "save the sea turtles" theme. Lindsey Spargur, general manager and director of product development at Coastal Provisions Co. and Skull Creek General Store, has been working with employees to switch from plastic to paper over the past six months.

Spargur says paper is more sustainable for the environment and easily reusable for customers. There is currently a display at Coastal Provisions highlighting the harm that plastics cause.

"It really helps to get customers thinking and serves as a great talking point," Spargur said. "We offer alternatives like 'eco-tote' shopping bags and give them away for free when customers spend a certain amount. There really isn't a negative impact on business because they understand."

Spargur said that the price of paper versus plastic bags is minimal considering the impact that litter has on coastal communities, including the tourism industry. "What's five cents compared to protecting our environment?" she said.

Some chain retailers on the island, such as Whole Foods, have been plastic-free for years now. More than 100 American cities, towns and counties have passed similar laws in the last decade, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

How and when Hilton Head - or Bluffton - might vote on such a ban remains to be seen, but local support for the cause appears to be gaining strength in light of the Chamber's questionnaire.

Shae Dalrymple is the assistant editor of the Bluffton Sun.