Photo by Christopher Vega on Unsplash

The City of Charleston implemented a ban on single-use plastic products like grocery bags and drinking straws at the beginning of 2020, but the coronavirus pandemic prompted the city to suspend the new ordinance on March 20, 2020, leading to enforcement confusion when the suspension was lifted two months later.

“There’s definitely still some confusion surrounding the mandate,” said Katie McKain, Charleston’s director of sustainability. “I think people heard the enforcement was trending down due to COVID, but probably didn’t realize the regulations went back into effect.”

The rule was suspended in March 2020 as small, locally owned businesses started struggling financially in the early days of the pandemic. But, as people began to live with the “new normal” of pandemic life, the city reinstated the regulation to keep the city from backpedalling.

But poor communication with the city’s businesses led to exactly that, some say.

“Our conservation partners who do a lot of the litter sweeps noticed a difference in declining single-use plastics being found in the beginning of the year, and that speaks volumes,” said the Coastal Conservation League’s land, water and wildlife senior program director, Emily Cedzo. “Obviously what we saw in the last year was an uptick, and that’s been a bit disheartening.”

Charleston County’s single-use plastics ban went back into place on Tuesday after County Council lifted the local state of emergency order, a day following the governor did the same thing at the state level.

Officials and advocates like Cedzo see the issue as temporary, able to be fixed with consistent enforcement and communication with business owners.

“We’ve been reaching out to businesses and letting them know the ordinance is still in effect, and that’s working for a lot of the business that just don’t know about it,” McKain said.

“Slowly, over time, with these policies back in place, we will once again see it make more and more a difference,” Cedzo said.

The Charleston community was widely in favor of the ordinance when it went into effect, Cedzo said, as multiple studies of microplastics in Lowcountry waters showed the adverse effects of improper disposal of large quantities of plastic products.

“If you remember the viral video of the turtle with the straw in its nose — videos like that really show how the plastic challenge is hurting our wildlife and how it impacts us,” McKain said.

People can use the City of Charleston’s online reporting system with the Citizen Service Desk to report potential plastic violations and help keep business owners accountable and in compliance.

Penalties for violations are minimal, if there are any at all, according to McKain, and most reports only warrant a letter or phone call to the business in question.

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