May/June 2019Turning the Tide Against LitterBy Cindy Thompson
A united front against litter is gaining traction in South Carolina - linking state and local efforts to stop littering before it starts.
It smells awful, it’s an eyesore, it contaminates and it’s harmful to life on Earth. Sadly, humans are the only living beings on the planet that create and disperse litter. And, ultimately, this habit is going to be our downfall. Unless we change our ways.
On April 2, 2015, Governor Nikki Haley signed into law the Take Palmetto Pride in Where You Live Act. As a result, the S.C. Litter Commission was formed to facilitate litter removal, reduction and prevention, and litter law enforcement. Under the auspices of and staffed by the SCDNR, the Commission has led to new partnerships and a laser-focused approach to cleaning up the state. The twelve-member team of state agencies, local governments and organizations meets at least twice a year for strategic planning.
South Carolina Representative Gilda Cobb-Hunter helped spearhead the Take Palmetto Pride in Where You Live Act and is a strong supporter of its mission. “My concerns were prompted by trash and litter up and down the highways and byways of our state,” says Cobb-Hunter. “I have always been concerned about the appearance of litter, and I think, quite frankly, there is an economic impact that results from it. Imagine if you were a prospective business owner coming into South Carolina. Our first impression is not a good one when people drive up and down littered highways. The whole point behind the Take Palmetto Pride Where You Live Act is so that we can dig down and get some of that palmetto pride and improve our surroundings.”
She adds that the battle against litter hits close to home. “I am a firm believer in leading by example, so I routinely pick up trash in front of my house. I have about a half-mile that I pick up religiously. It’s good exercise, and it’s good therapy.”
The SCDNR’s Litter Program Coordinator and liaison to the Litter Commission, Valerie Shannon, is well-known for her ingenuity and creating inspiring campaigns that resonate across the Carolina landscape. You could say, she has a knack for encouraging people to kick the litter habit.
Whether she is in the boardroom presenting statistics or in the classroom explaining the impacts of litter, Shannon’s message is consistent: Litter is destroying our natural resources, and it is up to us to make a change and be accountable for our actions.
In 2016, the overarching umbrella for the agency’s litter education efforts materialized in Shannon’s thoughts, and she presented her idea to SCDNR Director Alvin Taylor.
IT’S UP2U ®
“UP2U® is one of the anti-littering acronyms that I thought would be catchy, memorable, create a sense of personal accountability, and ultimately result in behavioral change,” Shannon says. “Once the new name was endorsed by Director Taylor, the tagline was trademarked by the SCDNR.”
Moving forward, the UP2U® name and its mission brought cohesion to the agency’s efforts to prevent litter. “Each of us has a personal responsibility to do what is right when it comes to preserving our natural resources and reducing our carbon footprint for the next generation,” she says. “The UP2U® website was created in March 2016 to show the impact of litter and be a source of information, exposing the dirty truth about litter with vivid pictures and, most of all, ignite people to take action against further polluting our state.”
Today, the UP2U® booth is always hopping at SCDNR events. The program’s message connects with Palmetto State residents who are tired of roadside trash and pop-up dumping grounds. In fact, thousands of people have taken the UP2U® pledge to reduce the use of single use plastics. Through UP2U’s “The Last Straw” campaign, Shannon received 10,283 pledges to eliminate the use of plastic straws and curb the use of single use plastics. In return for a pledge, the signee received one UP2U stainless steel straw. “The average person uses about two straws a day,” Shannon says. “As a result of the pledges to reduce the use of single use plastic straws during this campaign, we estimate that 12 million plastic straws did not end up on the roadside or in a landfill.”
The Global Picture
Due to its persistent and leaching properties, plastic litter has become one of our primary concerns. A team of scientists from the University of Georgia, the University of California, Santa Barbara and Sea Education Association recently completed the first global analysis of all plastics ever made. Their research, published in 2017 in Science Advances, found that by 2015, humans had generated 8.3 billion metric tons of plastics, 6.3 billion tons of which had already become waste. Of that waste total, only 9 percent was recycled, 12 percent was incinerated, and 79 percent accumulated in landfills or the natural environment. According to this study, if current trends continue, roughly 12 billion metric tons of plastic waste will need to be managed by 2050. In an earlier study, members of this research team estimated that 8 million metric tons of plastic entered the oceans in 2010. South Carolinians can get involved in the global litter-tracking process just by downloading the app: http://www.marinedebris.engr.uga.edu/.
UP2U® has also struck a chord with the SCDNR law enforcement officers who regularly respond to litter violations in the field. “The UP2U® program has partnered with a few organizations over the past few years, but the most important and impactful partnership has been with the law enforcement officers,” she says. “They are not only enforcing the law, but they’re true conservationists at heart. At least once a month I receive an email or text from them about an illegal dumpsite or heavily littered area. Or they let me know about establishments that are offering eco-friendly alternatives and not using plastic straws. Without the dedicated officers at the SCDNR, as well as other law enforcement agencies, my program would have minimal exposure or impact. It is because of the many amazing people who I work with, and those individuals who inspire me in my personal life, that I am able to do what I do. Their ideas, support and encouragement add inspiration and excitement to my anti-litter campaigns.”
Litter Commission members:
S.C. Department of Natural Resources, Chair
S.C. Department of Transportation, Vice Chair
S.C. Department of Corrections
S.C. Department of Probation, Parole, Pardon Services
S.C. Department of Public Safety
Keep America Beautiful of S.C.
Municipal Association of S.C.
S.C. Association of Counties
S.C. Sheriff’s Association
S.C. Trucking Association
The UP2U® program is gaining momentum statewide, Shannon adds. “Our hope is to continue building and maintaining great partnerships, and expanding opportunities to educate the public.”
When she is not on the road representing UP2U®, Shannon steps into her role as liaison to the Litter Commission - working alongside SCDNR Director Taylor, chair of the Litter Commission. “My role is to gather information [statistics and reports] and be a source of that information for the Litter Commision. This may involve addressing magistrate judges about community service, meeting with other county administrators, going in the field to see illegal dumpsites, or researching other states and their initiatives to recommend future strategies.”
PROTECTING NATURAL RESOURCES
“The S.C. Department of Natural Resources serves as the principal advocate for and the steward of South Carolina’s natural resources.” You’ll see this mission statement printed in all of its publications. Serving to protect the state’s soil and water, natural areas, wildlife and freshwater fisheries, marine life and plants is a massive responsibility. And within just a few decades, litter has surfaced as a monumental challenge.
The SCDNR Law Enforcement Division is responsible for patrolling 30,111 square miles of land, 460,000 acres of lakes, 8,000 miles of rivers, and 3,000 miles of coastal waters across the state. As part of their job, officers routinely respond to thousands of incoming reports via the SCDNR’s TIP411 cellphone app. The anonymous text messaging system allows residents to direct officers toward illegal activity - this includes illegal dumping and littering.
SCDNR Colonel Chisolm Frampton explains the importance of a statewide network. “Litter enforcement is a DNR priority across the state. The partnerships we have with the Litter Commission and the UP2U® program enable us to target areas with littering issues and prevent illegal dumping or littering before it starts.”
With a more united front, support is building at the state and local levels to end littering and restore a healthier environment.
Visit www.dnr.sc.gov/law/OGT to learn how to download TIP411 or submit an anonymous tip to the SCDNR.
CLEAN WATER, HEALTHY OCEAN
The South Carolina Aquarium is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization, supported by guests, members and donors. Its three-story, 385,000-gallon Great Ocean Tank is a magnificent centerpiece that encases a multitude of marine fish of all shapes, colors and sizes. Visitors get an up-close view of sea-dwelling species, including several shark species and a 220-pound loggerhead sea turtle named Caretta. The tour continues through South Carolina’s diverse terrains, from the mountains to the sea, and exhibits thousands of species that are interconnected by Southeastern fresh and salt water.
Housed within the aquarium is the state-of-the-art Zucker Family Sea Turtle Recovery™ Center. When a sea turtle is found stranded or injured, SCDNR staff bring the animal to the care center for treatment. The turtle is admitted into the center much as a person would be admitted into a hospital emergency room. Care center veterinarians diagnose each turtle and coordinate with staff and volunteers to provide treatment and rehabilitation. Based on the turtle’s condition, x-rays or ultrasounds may be taken and fluids, antibiotics, vitamins and other medications administered. Once nursed back to health, a sea turtle is returned to its aquatic environment to hopefully become a reproductive member of the sea turtle population.
Dedicated members of this Sea Turtle Recovery Center have seen an uptick in the number of turtles affected by litter and pollution. One of these experts is Conservation Programs Manager Kelly Thorvalson.
Thorvalson has worked at the Charleston locale for more than nineteen years and has been an integral part of the sea turtle rescue efforts. She explains that sea turtles often consume litter that looks like jellyfish floating in the water.
“We have treated twenty-three turtles with plastics and twenty of those were in the last five years,” Thorvalson says. “Sheet plastic, like that of plastic bags, is the most common type we’ve seen. Plant-based plastics may seem like a good replacement for petroleum-based plastics, but they don’t break down quickly and if ingested by sea turtles, can still cause great harm.”
Thorvalson also reminds us that “watersheds connect land to rivers and streams which eventually flow into the ocean. Inland plastic can be just as harmful as plastic debris along the coast. As a society, we need to move away from using single-use plastics.”
Almost four years ago, the Aquarium expanded its conservation efforts to include a robust program around mitigating plastic pollution in the ocean environment, and Thorvalson is helping to spearhead those efforts.
The hospital has treated and returned more than 260 sea turtles to their natural environment, including loggerhead, green, Kemp’s ridley, and leatherback sea turtles.
In January 2019, a green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) was found floating in Caper’s Inlet and delivered by the SCDNR to the South Carolina Aquarium. Named Zazu, the lethargic turtle has slowly started to respond to antibiotics and a special diet at the hospital. The turtle eventually passed torn portions of a balloon, clear plastic sheets and grocery bag material through its system. And as with Zazu, this type of litter is ingested by all sorts of marine life every day.
Peach, a Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, (Lepidochelys kempii) was rescued by SCDNR employees in the Charleston Harbor on June 1, 2017. She was captured in-water and brought aboard their research vessel after her rescuers noticed monofilament entangled around her left front flipper. Upon admission, South Carolina Aquarium Sea Turtle Care Center staff noticed two pieces of monofilament protruding from her esophagus. An initial surgery indicated the line continued into her intestines. On June 7, Dr. Shane Boylan and Sea Turtle Care Center staff performed an enterotomy on Peach, and they removed 120 cm of monofilament from her intestines. Peach made a full recovery and was released on Oct. 9, 2017. Read more about Peach: https://scaquarium.org/peach.
Following a week of strong storms, Gill, a small green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas), washed ashore in North Myrtle Beach on April 4, 2017. He was found covered with a heavy epibiota load (barnacles, algae, etc.) and lethargic, so he was transported to the South Carolina Aquarium Sea Turtle Care Center by SCDNR. Gill was found to be severely dehydrated and had a very low glucose level. After more than two weeks in the STCC, Gill passed a three-inch long piece of what appeared to be latex balloon. Four months of rehabilitation later, Gill was released back into the Atlantic Ocean on August 18, 2017. Read more about Gill: https://scaquarium.org/gill.
A 4.3-pound small, green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) was found floating in Caper’s Inlet on January 7, 2019, and he was quickly transported to the South Carolina Aquarium Sea Turtle Care Center. Upon admission, Zazu was lethargic with a body temperature of 60 degrees F (additionally, he was missing an eye, but the wound had healed). After a couple of weeks in the STCC, Zazu passed several pieces of marine debris including a piece of balloon, clear plastic sheets and grocery bag material. He is the twenty-third STCC patient that’s been affected by marine debris. Read more about Zazu: https://scaquarium.org/zazu.
Ocean litter is not just a coastal issue, this is a statewide and nationwide responsibility. As we’ve learned from international research, plastics discarded inland make their way to the ocean via rainwater and the leaching of particles or chemicals into the water system. And, over time, wildlife living downstream ingest plastics. No matter where you live, you can help improve the quality of life for wildlife species by eliminating litter.
Visit scaquarium.org/citizenscience to download the South Carolina Aquarium Citizen Science app or explore volunteer opportunities.
REDUCE, REUSE AND RECYCLE
Sonoco Recycling, SCDHEC’s Office of Solid Waste Reduction and Recycling, and Keep the Midlands Beautiful established S.C. Green Steps Schools in 2003 as part of South Carolina’s “Resource Conservation Challenge.” This environmental education initiative encourages individual schools to take annual steps toward becoming more environmentally responsible.
Sonoco Education Specialist Jane Hiller has coordinated the Green Steps program since its start, and her job also entails training businesses and agencies. As part of this effort, she hosts eye-opening tours at the Sonoco Recycling Center on Idlewilde Boulevard in downtown Columbia.
The process of separating recyclables is a modern marvel and a lot of fun to watch. Hiller explains: “Conveyors move materials through a series of machines which separate cardboard, glass, paper, plastic bottles and metal cans. Various magnets are utilized to attract steel and repel aluminum. Beams of infrared light identify #1 plastic bottles which are then blown over a wall with puffs of air. Staff further separate recyclables along the sorting line. Eventually materials are packed into large bales that are transported to the proper facilities for remanufacturing. The materials are ground or melted and reformed into new products like toilet paper, fleece jackets or new aluminum cans!”
As part of each tour, Hiller offers tips on how to “Reduce, Reuse and Recycle,” a resounding motto that will hopefully become second nature to future generations.
To learn more about recycling, Hiller suggests visiting these websites:
- RecycleInSC.com (SC Dept of Commerce)
- RecycleMoreSC.org (SCDHEC)
- Sonoco Recycling’s cartoon for all ages “Remarkable Recyclers”
South Carolina’s Solid Waste Report
How is South Carolina measuring up when it comes to properly disposing of trash or recycling? According to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control (SCDHEC) South Carolina Solid Waste Management Annual Report for Fiscal Year 2018, the amount of municipal solid waste generated (recycled plus disposed of) was 4,289,591 tons. Of that amount, 28.1 percent (1,203,597 tons) was recycled and 71.9 percent (3,085,994 tons) was disposed of in municipal solid waste landfills.
And how does our state measure up when it comes to litter? The S.C. Department of Transportation (SCDOT) and the S.C. Department of Corrections report collecting more than 6.46 million pounds of litter and debris from our highways and organized cleaning events during 2018.