Paper or plastic? It’s a question that Beaufort County residents and visitors have all grown accustomed to answering.
But soon, it appears, there might only be one option at checkout counters.
So far, Beaufort County’s plastic bag ban has gained initial approval from the county and every municipality aside from Bluffton.
Those who oppose the ban say it will cause one of two things: an increase in product costs for consumers or a steep dive in profits for store owners.
The South Carolina Retail Association, which represents hundreds of retailers across the state, is one of the prominent groups opposed to such a ban in Beaufort County.
“Retailers want and will comply with all local, state and federal laws, but it’s going to cost them a lot of money to do so,” said Lindsey Kueffner, executive director of the association. “Either they have to absorb costs or pass it along to customers. Neither are desirable.
“If you increase costs, even by pennies, it ends up disproportionately hurting lower- and middle-income customers.”
In South Carolina, two municipalities — Folly Beach and Isle of Palms — have passed similar plastic bag bans in recent years.
Jeremy Hammond, general manager of Bert’s Market on Folly Beach, said in order to offset the additional charges of providing paper instead of plastic bags, the grocery store did “minimally” increase some costs on a wide range of products.
A spokesperson for Harris Teeter, which has stores in both Folly Beach and Isle of Palms, said the only change that was made was taking away plastic bags from those stores.
In both municipalities where a ban was enacted, only a handful of stores were affected. A ban in Beaufort County, however, will have the largest impact in the state, affecting dozens of business establishments.
David Martin, owner of Piggly Wiggly in Coligny Plaza on Hilton Head Island, grew up on the island and said that he would like to see less trash on the beaches and in the waterways. But, he added, the ban is going to cost him.
According to Martin, a paper bag currently costs him about 7 cents more than a plastic bag.
He hasn’t thought much about what his business will do if the ban is implemented, but he said “somebody is going to have to pay.”
Supporters of the ban — such as Rikki Parker, South Coast Project Manager for the Coastal Conservation League — see it differently.
“I think what that calculation doesn’t take into account is that once people get used to the ban, they’ll start using reusable bags,” Parker said. “The great thing is that it decreases demand for paper bags and that means local grocers and retailers won’t have to purchase as many large stock paper bags.”
In July, about 700 people responded to the survey by the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce about the prospect of a plastic bag ban. Of those who responded, 71 percent said they believed plastic bags should be banned on Hilton Head, according to the Chamber.
Still, Kueffner believes many business owners are not speaking up, possibly for a fear of being boycotted, she said.
“It’s such a sensitive issue that it puts grocers and retailers in a really precarious situation,” Kueffner said. “... Nobody wants to be boycotted, especially this time of year. That’s why the retail association is taking the lead on it, because of the nature of this issue.”
County Councilman Jerry Stewart was the only council member who voted against the county’s plastic bag ban ordinance last week.
“I don’t think we as government should tell people how to live their lives,” he said. “There are other ways to get people to change their habits opposed to banning something that people can use appropriately and find it a useful commodity.
“... Because if you want to really stop pollution and the polluting our environment, everything we use in our daily lives will have to be done away with.”
He’s also concerned that the council doesn’t maintain a good grasp on how businesses are going to respond and how consumers will be affected.
“We have no understanding about what businesses are going to do or how they are going to respond to this,” Stewart said. “Let’s hear from some businesses and other people aside from the handful that have been so vocal and demanding that we do this.
At the council meetings in Port Royal, Beaufort, Hilton Head and Bluffton over the past two weeks, no community members have given public comment opposed to the ban.
“The problem is you can’t force people to come out,” Stewart said.