Charleston's ban includes single-use plastic bags and styrofoam containers | Photo credit:

‘They’ve had time to adjust’

The City of Charleston’s ban on single-use plastics that took effect at the beginning of 2020 has had some challenges, especially during the first year due to a COVID-induced temporary suspension in enforcement. 

The ban was suspended in March 2020 and went back into effect that June. It prohibits businesses from supplying customers with single-use plastics like shopping bags, straws, takeout containers and more. But since the suspension, businesses have been confused as to whether the ban was ever really in effect. 

“With COVID and all the challenges of reeducating businesses, it was a lot more difficult to enforce it fully,” said Katie McKain, Charleston’s director of sustainability. “We had to be really flexible and support businesses.”

Conservation advocacy groups recorded a noticeable decline in plastic litter after the ban went into effect, according to the Coastal Conservation League. And now that the pandemic is waning and the supply chain issues are slowly resolving, the city is seeing even more local businesses adapting to the mandate.

“There has been an increase in U.S. manufacturing, it’s been a lot easier for businesses to find products,” McKain said. “They’ve had time to adjust, and many are being flexible with products that are available. It’s good to see our local businesses adapting to the change.”

But enforcement is still a struggle for businesses that aren’t in compliance, McKain said. However, city officials are looking to ramp up enforcement in the coming months. Flagrant offenders can expect court summons. Future plans also include tighter restrictions like the thicker, “reusable” plastic bags found in some chain stores like Walmart or CVS.

“I think ideally the mandate is meant to address all the single-use plastics we see in the waste chain,” McKain said. “A lot of it is about reeducation and helping people understand the rules. Our enforcement of this is similar to how we enforce the smoking ban. We depend on citizens to report violations, and then we go and investigate those. We certainly don’t have the staff to go out and check in on every restaurant in the city.”

McKain added that customers can use the City of Charleston’s online reporting system to report potential plastic violations, but before taking that step, she recommended that customers simply talk to the managers of area businesses in a respectful manner about the ordinance and why it’s important. “If you can talk to the manager and let them know you’re concerned — that can go really far,” she said. “Business owners like to support their customers. It helps a lot to see that people want them to change, and it’s not just the law behind it.”

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