Litter can be a personal issue. For some, the shock of seeing local wildlife munching on plastic bags spurs the urge to volunteer for beach clean-ups. For others, the importance of keeping our water clean hits home when family members get sick after a swim at a contaminated beach. But for many, soda cans, water bottles, food wrappers, and cigarette butts are just bits of muck that hit the street and wash away, forgotten. That waste doesn't just disappear, though, and it is can be costly to clean up. Horry County budgets close to 1 million a year on beach and street cleanup alone and taxpayers are shouldering the costs to stop litter from becoming pollution that harms the environment, tourism and other economic activity.
Most aquatic debris comes from land-based sources: littering, legal and illegal dumping, a lack of or poor waste management practices and recycling capacity, stormwater discharges, animal interference with garbage, and extreme natural events like hurricanes and flooding. Most of the responsibility for managing waste falls on local governments, so communities themselves incur direct and significant expenses in reducing and preventing aquatic debris—whether they reside near small streams or on the Atlantic coast, where costs become particularly high. Coastal communities also must often bear the cost of cleaning up litter washed downstream from inland communities.
Stopping litter at its source is the best solution. Because of the ever-growing quantity of single-use plastic packaging, South Carolina communities are bearing the costs of preventing litter from becoming pollution in the State's precious waterways. To help solve this problem, we need to go to the source: the best course of action is to stop products from becoming litter in the first place, by increasing recycling rates, and reducing the use of disposable plastic items, such as bags and polystyrene cups, which easily escape into the environment.
Litter clean-up programs might appear as line items on some city budgets, but there are other hidden costs to removing the glut of trash that pours into South Carolina’s waterways. Coastal Carolina University estimates that hospitality and tourism accounts for a $7 billion economic impact. This powerful economic engine relies on a clean and healthy environment. When litter accumulates in rivers and on beaches, or when stormwater systems overflow during heavy rains and discharge untreated water and debris into waterways, South Carolina’s economy suffers. Often beaches are closed entirely. The fishing industry is also increasingly affected by waste in our waters ways, as increasing numbers of fish have been found with plastic waste in their stomachs.
South Carolina needs to continue to advance upstream source reduction and improved recycling. We need the producers of cheap, disposable plastic packaging—which constitutes the largest and most harmful quantity of litter—to take their share of responsibility for the end-of-life management of their products. If we implement changes to fairly share the financial and logistical burden of the ever-growing quantity of plastic trash between local governments, taxpayers and the plastic producers; it would create incentives for producers to develop safer and less wasteful products and packaging. And increased recycling will create jobs in South Carolina, while protecting the health and beauty of South Carolina’s treasured coastline and waterways.
Since January, over 900 volunteers have collected 45,000 lbs of discarded waste from our rivers, river banks, beaches, wetlands and swamps through the Winyah Rivers Foundation’s Waccamaw RIVERKEEPER® program. This dedicated group of community stewards volunteered 4,000 hours to protect our rivers and our wildlife from pollution. They have proudly cleaned over 100 river miles and work closely with Winyah Rivers Foundation’s staff to ensure our rivers, our wildlife and our families remain healthy.
Students and Staff from Early College High School, Cleanup at Riverwalk Park in Conway, SC.