Noble Column: Plastic Bags, SC’s Home Rule and Dying Oceans

Phil Noble

By Phil Noble

Over the 40 years that I have known her, I have come to have great respect for my wife’s political antenna. When she says something about a politician or an issue, I have learned that it’s best to pay attention.

My wife is not a political junkie in the traditional sense. And, just living with me all these years has forced her to hear a lot more about a lot of people and a lot of issues than any sane and reasonable person should ever have to endure. My apologies, dear.

Like most normal people, she doesn’t follow this stuff on a daily basis. But, when she offers a strong and definitive opinion about someone or some issue, I’ve learned that she is usually right … even if it takes the rest of us a long time to see the wisdom of her judgement.

Just one example: many years ago, I became friendly with an overly ambitious eager beaver that wanted to run for Congress. After just one shared dinner, my wife judged him as excessively selfish and the type of person that would cut corners to get where he wanted to go. Years later, this eager beaver had made his way up the slippery pole of politics and was running for President, and during a heated TV interview he revealed the corner cutting side of his personality.

My wife just looked at me across the room and though she did not say a word, the message was loud and clear: “I told you so.”

Recently, her antenna has gone up again. This time it’s plastic bags. 

As she said very succinctly the other day, “There is no good reason that they should not be banned. They are killing our oceans and it’s only the plastic bag industry that is keeping the ban from happening.”

She is right.

Plastic bags (and other plastics) are killing our oceans and the fish and wildlife that live there. Technically, they are called ‘single-use, high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic bags’ – and support for banning these bags is growing not just in South Carolina or the U.S. but also globally. More on the global part later.

One fact (not an alternative fact): the average plastic bag is used only once for an average of 20 minutes, but if it ends up in a landfill, it can be around for 1,000 years.

We have all seen the pictures of seals, fish and other sea life with the plastic beverage six pack rings stuck around their necks or strangling them at the gills. As bad as this is, this is really just a tiny part of a bigger problem – it’s really about the trillions of pieces of plastic bottles, bags, toys, fishing nets and other plastic junk that is killing our oceans. These plastics don’t break down very fast (if at all) and when they do, they degenerate into small particles that get into the food chain – what you and I eat.

Currently, we are dumping about 8 million tons of plastic a year in the oceans and there is now 110 million tons of this stuff floating around in the world’s oceans – and most of this stuff came from North America.

A quick check of your atlas will tell you that South Carolina is in North America and on the coast – which brings us to the nitty gritty issue of home rule and the nitty gritty of South Carolina politics.

Two ocean front municipalities, Folly Beach (aka The Edge of America) and Sullivan’s Island have passed a local ordinance banning plastic bags. Those in the Statehouse that opposed the ban (supported by the plastic bag industry, the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce and others), introduced a bill that would prohibit other municipalities from passing such a ban.

Now if you jump to the conclusion that this was a traditional business vs the environment, left vs right, Democrats vs Republicans issue – you would be wrong. Many coastal Republicans supported the ban and it was also partially about ‘home rule.’ If a local government does something that a special interest group doesn’t like, they can run to the Statehouse (already corrupted by special interest money, see the local papers for details) and get the legislature to overrule the home folks.

In a House of Representatives vote last month, this time the good guys won – by a single vote, 50-49. But make no mistake about it, the bag boys (with their bags of cash) will be back.

But, they are on the wrong side of history … and my wife.

With a little research, I found out what my wife knew instinctively. This is an issue that is bigger than just two coastal South Carolina communities and issues of S.C. home rule. It’s bigger than the U.S. and even bigger than the oceans themselves. It’s an issue about what sort of world are we going to live in.

What began in 2002 with a total ban on plastic bags enacted in Bangladesh (yes, Bangladesh) has grown into a global movement. A ban has now been enacted in many diverse countries such as Rwanda, China, Taiwan, Netherlands, Italy, Morocco, Uganda, Tanzania and Macedonia. Ironically, it seems to be the poorest countries of Africa and Asia that have been leading on this issue. Many other countries impose a fee per bag and in the U.S., dozens of cities in over 20 states have enacted either total bans, taxes or fees on the bags.

So, back to my wife and her political antenna. She is right about how important this is and it’s good that the good guys have won in South Carolina (at least for now). For once, it’s good that South Carolina is on ‘the right side of history’… and we need to stay there. The ban needs to be extended to other coastal communities and then statewide.

Remember this the next time someone asks you “paper or plastic?”


Phil Noble has a technology firm in Charleston, is Co-founder of EnvisionSC and writes a weekly column for the S.C. Press Association. Contact him at and get his columns at

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