Waste Not

Nearly 1,000 volunteers with the Keep Charleston Beautiful program have put more than 2,000 collective hours into cleaning up the Lowcountry, picking up more than 22,000 pounds of litter just this year, and if years prior are any indication, they have plenty more ahead of them. 

“It’s a lot of work to keep it all picked up,” said the City of Charleston’s Department of Parks director Jason Kronsberg. “They pick up litter sometimes once a week, sometimes every other week depending on the roadway, and when you pick up the litter, it can be back within an hour.”

And they aren’t the only group who sees the issue. A number of people, from neighborhood groups to statewide organizations, have been doing what they can to help alleviate the stress of trash on Palmetto State roads, landscapes and waterways.

The South Carolina Aquarium’s “Litter-Free Digital Journal,” launched in 2016, has kept a record of data from members of the community by logging individual pieces of trash.

In 2016, 30,239 pieces of trash were logged, and 88,859 pieces in 2017. The number jumped to 179,271 in 2018, and nearly doubled to 334,835 in 2019. In 2020, 508,232 pieces of trash were reported, and so far in 2021, 232,186 have been logged.

The growing number of reports coincide with worsening conditions of litter throughout the Lowcountry, volunteers say. In 2020, as officials warned that the pandemic was worsening the area’s litter problem, Keep Charleston Beautiful saw volunteer hours cut in half, but pounds of litter cleaned only diminished by about 30%. 

“Every time there’s a new roadway or new houses put in place, there are new travelers using those roadways, and the litter certainly follows suit,” Kronsberg said. “Contractor debris, pickup-truck related, delivery stuff — with the booming economy here, litter is going to happen.” 

A growing cost

Trash lining roadways could be easily dismissed as the area being “dirty,” but advocates say the accumulation of litter can trigger much more urgent issues.

“It’s not just an eyesore,” said PalmettoPride executive director Sarah Lyles. “We want people to understand that with Charleston, and tourism being the primary industry, a heavily littered place is going to be dangerous for drivers and pedestrians. It detracts from natural beauty, and it takes resources to clean that could be applied elsewhere. And of course, it pollutes our waters and harms the environment.”

Litter discarded along roadways or elsewhere could be contributing to the worsening flooding in the Charleston area. Carried by rainwater runoff to storm drains, garbage can stop up local drainage systems.

“I don’t think people realize that when you have litter that gets into storm drains, it prevents them from working to allow water to flow through, and that impacts flooding, particularly with creeks and tributaries,” Lyles explained. “We have to keep those waters flowing freely.”

Advocates say it goes beyond plastic bags, straws or cups tossed aside. 

“We can think about litter as waste products that have been discarded incorrectly or at an unsuitable location or in excess,” said Betsy La Force, Coastal Conservation League’s communities and transportation senior project manager. “Landfills represent a lot of that. Even if your trash is ending up in a trash can and ultimately landfill, the footprint, the impact of your waste, is still contributing to climate change and greenhouse gasses.

“There’s a much larger environmental cost to sending organic waste to the landfill, where it’s unable to break down in a natural way,” she said. “A lot of people think of food waste as being organic, breaking down on its own, but when it ends up in a landfill, covered up by plastic and compressed down to save space, it’s trying to decompose without oxygen, and that’s what produces the methane gas.”

According to La Force, municipal solid-waste landfills, like the county’s Bees Ferry Road Landfill, are the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the U.S. and the leading contributor to climate change according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

“One of our biggest challenges is Glenn McConnell and Bees Ferry Road, because you have the dump there, and people are always going to the landfill,” Kronsberg said.

South Carolina generates roughly 4.2 million tons of municipal solid waste per year, according to La Force. More than 70% of that ends up in landfills, “consuming valuable acreage, blighting the landscape, contaminating the soil and waterways and emitting noxious, polluting gases like methane into the air.”

Efforts abound, but more needed

With the issue growing worse every year, local groups of all sizes have implemented programs and efforts to help reverse the impact of litter.

In addition to the City of Charleston’s Keep Charleston Beautiful program, city council in May adopted its climate action plan, which includes 12 initiatives and 51 plans to address climate change; one chapter focuses entirely on waste.

The chapter details 10 plans of action to reduce the impact of waste on the climate in the Lowcountry, including the continuation of supporting the elimination of single-use plastics, performing a garbage audit and increasing the number of recycling stations in public spaces.

PalmettoPride operates a Litter Busters Hotline, an awareness campaign that allows members of the community to be a part of enforcement. People can call in to the hotline when they see someone littering, or a hotspot that needs to be cleaned up.

Photo by Ashley Rose Stanol

“We are one of the few states that have one of these hotlines,” Lyles said. “It’s just a way to empower citizens and let them be a part of the enforcement of litter laws and help educate people of the econsequences of their actions.”

PalmettoPride boasts four program areas in total, including education, where they visit classrooms to teach students about littering and community cleanup. But, both Lyles and La Force said more needs to be done at every level to make a dramatic difference in the problematic effects of litter. 

“If we can figure out how to encourage more residents to compost, even on their own, or from a municipal collections standpoint where they can roll out food waste and kitchen scraps across the city — it needs to be easy, affordable and accessible, and right now, it’s not,” La Force said.

Composting, she said, needs to be a big priority for solutions.

“That will really help contribute to other issues that are interrelated,” La Force said. “It can make soil more absorbent for stormwater, and it can help establish that farm-to-table loop that many restaurants that source local produce from local farms. It just expands out so far.”

Since implementing the hotline, Lyles said she has seen fewer and fewer calls and reports of littering in the area. But, she said that could have been due to the pandemic keeping people inside more often. At the moment, she said, it’s difficult to determine where the numbers are trending. But Kronsberg said local efforts combined with new city programs should work to reduce overall litter throughout the Lowcountry.

Report litter through PalmettoPride’s Litter Buster hotline by calling
1-800-7LITTER, online or through their Litter Buster app.

Correction: The original version of this story erroneously cited data from the South Carolina Aquarium’s “Litter-Free Digital Journal,” causing the story to underreport the actual amount of litter collected. This story has been updated. We regret the error.