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Minimizing Plastics Bags
The Plastic Bag Minimization Committee (March 2016 through November 2016) was comprised of City of Charleston government officials, concerned local citizens, conservation groups, and business groups, including the Charleston Chamber of Commerce and Lowcountry Local First. 


The Committee’s work was citizen-driven, formulated after community members brought the issue to Mayor John Tecklenburg for study. The purpose of this committee was to evaluate options (including education or ordinances) for minimizing plastic bags because of the tendency for single use plastic bags to become litter, whether they are disposed of or recycled, whether properly or improperly.

A key part of this evaluation was to understand the perspectives of citizens and business owners.  Thus, an opinion survey on plastic bag usage throughout Berkeley, Charleston, and Dorchester Counties was created.  Click here to see the survey results.  Thank you to all who participated in the survey.



PLASTIC BAG FACTS

  • American-sourced plastic bags (composed of high density polyethylene or HDPE) are made of a by-product from the production of natural gas and mixed with calcium, low density polyethylene (LDPE) and coloring.  Plastic bags used appropriately and disposed of appropriately are benign in their impact to the humans who make them and use them.  According to a Life Cycle Assessment of Grocery Bags by Clemson University, these bags are designed for one use as a grocery bag.   They weigh approximately 6.2 grams and are most often measured in microns, which is one thousandth (.001) of a millimeter. These bags are the lightest of all plastic bags.  (Robert M. Kimmel, Sc.D., Kay D. Cooksey, Ph.D., and Allison Littman.  Life Cycle Assessment of Grocery Bags in Common Use in the United States. Clemson University Digital Press, 2014.)

  • Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) plastic carry bags are a petroleum based product.  Typically these bags are thicker than the HDPE t – shirt style bags.  They are 2.25 milliliters or greater in thickness and are not nearly as susceptible to being blown into the water and woods.  Their thickness means they are designed for reuse or to withstand sharper edges. (Robert M. Kimmel, Sc.D., Kay D. Cooksey, Ph.D., and Allison Littman.  Life Cycle Assessment of Grocery Bags in Common Use in the United States. Clemson University Digital Press, 2014.)

  • Not all plastic resin bags in South Carolina are sourced from American manufacturers.  In 2015 approximately 31% of plastic bags used in the US are purchased from outside the US.  (US International Trade Commission and US Department of Commerce)

Economic


  • The economic activities most clearly tied to the state’s natural resource base (not including agriculture) sustain $30 billion dollars in economic impact when measured in terms of annual state output—the total annual value of goods and services associated with natural resources related business activities. This total state impact supports 236,000 jobs.  (South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, “The Economic Impact of South Carolina’s Natural Resources,” p. ii, 2009.)

  • The plastics industry in SC contributes more than $107 million to the South Carolina economy.  (The Plastics Industry Trade Association, “Size and Impact of the U. S. Plastics Industry”, 2015 p. 42)

  • The Plastics Industry Trade Association reports that 400 jobs are supported by the plastic bag manufacturing industry in South Carolina.  They also report that $0 in production worker wages, reflecting that no plastic bags are made in South Carolina.  (The Plastics Industry Trade Association, “Size and Impact of the U. S. Plastics Industry”, 2015 p. 42).

  • Novolex manufactures single use plastic and is headquartered in Hartsville, South Carolina.  No plastic bags are manufactured in South Carolina by Novolex.  (Mark Daniel, Novolex.  Personal Interview. August 12, 2016)

Environment

  • Plastic bags are among the top five sources of plastic litter collected during beach cleanups in Charleston. 7 tons of all types of plastics were found in Charleston Harbor.  (Wertz, Hope. 2015. Marine debris in Charleston Harbor: Characterizing plastic particles in the field and assessing their effects on juvenile clams (Mercenaria mercenaria) Master’s Thesis. College of Charleston.)

  • Plastic bags break down over time into smaller pieces called microplastics.  Small marine organisms that make up a part of our diet such as bivalves, shrimp, crabs, and fish have been shown to accumulate microplastics in their tissues (Wang et al., 2015; Rochman et al., 2015).Plastic bags are among the top five sources of plastic litter collected during beach cleanups in Charleston. (Wertz, Hope. 2015. Marine debris in Charleston Harbor: Characterizing plastic particles in the field and assessing their effects on juvenile clams (Mercenaria mercenaria) Master’s Thesis. College of Charleston) 

  • Plastic bags break down over time into smaller pieces called microplastics.  Small marine organisms that make up a part of our diet such as bivalves, shrimp, crabs, and fish have been shown to accumulate microplastics in their tissues (Wang, Jundong. 2016 The behaviors of microplastics in the marine environment. Marine Environmental Research 113, 7-17)   (Rochman, Chelsea, M. et. al. (2015) Anthropogenic debris in seafood: Plastic debris and fibers from textiles in fish and bivalves sold for human consumption. Scientific Reports 5, 14340)

  • Single use plastic bags (HDPE) when inappropriately discarded, make their ways to waterways.  Concentrations of toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) already polluting waterways are easily absorbed by HDPEs and LDPEs.  Therefore, plastic debris may become hazardous to aquatic life the longer it remains in waterways. As the item degrades, its surface area increases, providing even more absorption opportunities.   (Rochman, Chelsea M., Hoh, Eunha, Hentschel, Brian T. and Kaye, Shawn. “Long-Term Field Measurement of Sorption of Organic Contaminants to Five Types of Plastic Pellets: Implications for Plastic Marine Debris” Environmental Science & Technology, pp.1646 - 1654 (2013))

  • Safety Data Sheet for plastic bag’s most prevalent ingredient indicates that 1- Butene, polymer with ethane should not be flushed into surface water or sanitary sewer system as an environmental precaution if it is accidentally released. (LyondellBasell.  Material Safety Data Sheet.  4/17/2015)    

Wildlife

  • Plastic bag pollution affects many species of marine life, including sea turtles that ingest plastic bags after mistaking them for jellyfish. The South Carolina Aquarium Sea Turtle Rescue Program has had twelve patients with plastic debris in their system, with one turtle having consumed at least 12 pieces of plastic bag.

  • The most immediate threat posed by plastic bags is the ability to suffocate marine organisms (Cole et al., 2011).

  • Plastic bag pollution affects many species of marine life, including sea turtles that ingest plastic bags after mistaking them for jellyfish. The South Carolina Aquarium’s Sea Turtle Care Center has documented a diverse collection of plastic items, including large sections of single-use plastic grocery bags, in the gastrointestinal tracts of fourteen stranded sea turtles representing three different species. (South Carolina Aquarium)

  • The most immediate threats posed by plastic bags entanglement, consumption, and smothering of marine organisms. (Bergmann M., Butow L., & Klages M. (Eds.) (2015) Marine Anthropogenic Litter. Switzerland: Springer International Publishing)









Human Health

  • Research has shown that humans are ingesting microplastics, but the potential effects of doing so have yet to be thoroughly studied.  (Van Cauwenberghe, Lisbeth, & Janssen, Carl R. (2014) Microplastics in bivalves cultured for human consumption. Environmental Pollution, 193, 65-70)

  • Safety Data Sheet for plastic bag’s most prevalent ingredient indicates that 1- Butene, polymer with ethane says that adverse effects due to ingestion are not anticipated.  (LyondellBasell.  Material Safety Data Sheet Alathon L5005.  April 17, 2015)        

Waste and Energy

  • Americans use and throw away 100 billion plastic bags every year, which requires 12 million barrels of oil (Clap & Swanston, 2009); just two plastic bags require 990 kilojoules of natural gas, 240 kilojoules of petroleum and 160 kilojoules of coal (Institute for Lifecycle Environmental Assessment, 1990).

  • Charleston County’s recycling program does not accept plastic bags (Findlay, 2014). Plastic bags wrap around processing equipment at the recycling center, causing daily shutdowns for workers to remove tangled bags.

  • Participating retail locations accept plastic bags for recycling, but only 1% of plastic bags are returned in the U.S. (Moore, Charles James. "Synthetic Polymers in the Marine Environment: A Rapidly Increasing, Long-term Threat." Environmental Research 108.2 (2008): 131-39. Web).

  • Plastic bags in the United States can be made from recycled plastic. The content of HDPE plastic bags made in the United States can include 15  to 30 % of their content as recycled plastic.    (Mark Daniel, Novolex.  Email. September 14, 2016)

  • Plastic bag and film waste constitutes an estimated .3% to the 2013 municipal waste stream in the United States.  (Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Resource Conservation and Recovery,  Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: Facts and Figures – Assessing Trends in Material Generation, Recycling and Disposal in the United States, June 2015, Table 7, p. 49) https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-09/documents/2013_advncng_smm_rpt.pdf



  • Plastic bags are one component of the plastic film data.  221million pounds of mixed plastic film was recovered in the US in 2014.  This recovery quantity was down by 11% from 2013.  Overall 45 % of this quantity was recovered for recycling and the remainder was exported.  (Moore Recycling Associates Inc., 2014 National PostConsumer Plastic Bag & Film Recycling Report for the American Chemistry Council, January 2016)

  • EPA found that 5.7% of the HDPE plastic bags plus plastic sacks and wraps are reported recycled in 2013.  (Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Resource Conservation and Recovery,  Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: Facts and Figures – Assessing Trends in Material Generation, Recycling and Disposal in the United States, June 2015, Table 7, p. 49) https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-09/documents/2013_advncng_smm_rpt.pdf

  • During the SC Beach Sweep, of all the material collected (cigarette butts, metal, glass, fireworks, diapers, construction materials, lighters and more) single use plastic bags are routinely one of the 11 most likely items to be retrieved in the state’s coastal counties.  Over 40% of all plastic grocery bags found during the South Carolina Beach Sweep/River Sweep in 2015 were found in Charleston County.  During the 2015 Beach Sweep/River Sweep the following locations had the highest numbers of plastic grocery bags found. 
Kiawah Island (100 bags)
Alberta Long Lake (99 bags)
Waterfront Park, Charleston Harbor (92 bags)
Sullivan’s Island (73 bags)                                   
Source: Ocean Conservancy

  • During the New Market Clean Up on October 22nd, 397 single use plastic bags were collected.   (Surfrider and Keep Charleston Beautiful)

  • Charleston County’s recycling program does not accept plastic bags. Plastic bags wrap around processing equipment at the recycling center, causing daily shutdowns for workers to remove tangled bags.   (Findlay, Prentiss  “Plethora of Plastic Bags Plague County Recycling Center” Post and Courier,  8 October 2014  http://www.postandcourier.com/article/20141006/PC16/141009581)

   Footprint

  •      Plastic bags, reusable bags and paper bags all have footprints.  Clemson University estimates that each of the following products need to be used by the amount of times shown to equalize each product’s life cycle environmental impact:
    • Plastic Recycled Bag                                               1.1
    • Paper bag (made of 40% recycled paper)                 6.7
    • Paper bag (made of 100% recycled paper)               3.6
    • LDPE Thick Plastic Reusable                                    6.2
    • Non-woven Polypropylene                                      21.5
    • Note: regionally made cotton reuseable bags were not evaluated

(Robert M. Kimmel, Sc.D., Kay D. Cooksey, Ph.D., and Allison Littman.  Life Cycle Assessment of Grocery Bags in Common Use in the United States. Clemson University Digital Press, 2014)



Coalition

The coalition conducting this survey includes:
  • Charleston County Environmental Management
  • Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce
  • Charleston Waterkeeper
  •  City of Charleston
  •  Citizens
  •  Medical University of South Carolina 
  •  Keep Charleston Beautiful
  •  Lowcountry Local First
  •  South Carolina Aquarium
  •  South Carolina Coastal Conservation League
  •  Surfrider Foundation Charleston Chapter