HORRY COUNTY, S.C. (WBTW) — Michelle Bailey was on Wilson Road, on her way to the dump, and was behind a vehicle with an untarped load. Yard debris was flying out everywhere, getting all over the road.
It’s things similar to that, she said, that’s led to Florence County’s litter issues — whether people are unaware that they need to cover the loads in their vehicles so trash doesn’t get out, or if drivers know, and still don’t.
Amid evolving attitudes about what constitutes litter and if it’s acceptable, she’s one of many statewide trying to crack down on the amount of trash along South Carolina’s roads, and educate future generations. But the problem, she said, is that some people don’t care.
“I think that people know what litter is,” said Bailey, the board chair for Keep Florence Beautiful. “I don’t think people say, ‘If I spit my gum out on the ground, that’s not littering.’ I think people know enough that that’s littering, so I don’t think that mindset is the issue. I think the issue is a little bit deeper than that.”
More than 3.6 million lbs of trash were removed from South Carolina roadways last year, a dip from the 4.2 million collected the year before, according to data from the South Carolina Department of Transportation.
In 2020, 43,416 lbs of litter were removed from Horry County roads, a slight increase from the previous year. That same year, 140,387 lbs were collected in Florence County.
Of the litter reported to the state Litter Busters Hotline, 39% was litter thrown from vehicles, 38% were smoking materials and 12% were food wrappers.
While about three times as much litter is collected in Florence County than Horry County, Horry County is one of a handful of counties topping the hotline’s list for the most calls, according to the hotline’s 2021 first quarter report. There were 273 incidences of litter and illegal dumping reported during the first part of the year.
Horry County ranked fourth on the list for the most reports, beneath Greenville, Richland and Charleston counties.
That rank may be due to the county’s large population, according to Sarah Lyles, the executive director of PalmottoPride, which works to eliminate litter from the state. Coastal communities also tend to be more aware of littering issues, especially when it comes to waterways.
The statewide program works year-round with initiatives like Grab a Bag SC in the fall, grants and running the Adopt-a-Highway Program.
While pickup efforts are important, Lyles said, PalmettoPride also conducts education, enforcement and awareness.
Social media, she said, has allowed conversations to spread.
“I do think people are more aware of the issue, and that’s why we’re seeing more calls, and more people are talking about it in public,” Lyles said. “I do think that indicates on a broader scale that people are paying more attention to litter.”
Calls to the Litter Busters Hotline are currently in a dip, she said, but it’s too early to know if that’s because of less littering, or due to the pandemic. Many community clean-ups were also canceled last year, leading to less litter being collected.
“So we are playing catch-up, but I think we have a good handle on it, now,” Lyles said.
Historically, volunteers have been the main people involved in pick-ups.
“What we find is the infrastructure is bigger than what volunteers can do,” she said.
It’s not a South Carolina-specific issue. Lyles said the world’s consumer culture and rise of single-use plastics have led to more disposable containers.
But, she said, people also have to be individually responsible.
South Carolina was one of the first states in the nation to implement a litter reporting hotline. The Litter Busters Hotline, at (877) 7LITTER, allows people to report litter and illegal dumping 24/7. The hotline asks for the location, the state license tag, the type of litter and the vehicle’s make and model. The vehicle’s owner will then receive a letter from the South Caroling Department of Motor Vehicles detailing state and local litter laws.
Violators can receive up to a $1,000 fine. Information from the hotline is also used to crack down on illegal dumping sites.
“It gives people a way to feel responsible by giving people a way to do something about litter,” Lyles said.
Cleanups not only clear litter, but help to prevent it in the future. Once an area is cleaned, she said, volunteers notice less gathers up again.
“Routine pickup does reduce litter,” she said. “When it doesn’t get picked up, all you see is a huge problem.”
More than 900 bags of trash were collected during Keep Florence Beautiful’s March cleanup, according to Bailey. She’s seen Florence County’s litter issue improving — except for on the road to the dump.
The organization has branched out to education in an attempt to prevent littering.
“It is really about teaching the next generations about what will happen if we don’t correct the issues that we are doing today,” Bailey said.
She said the county has a problem with illegal dumping. She’s also seen a lot of masks and gloves on the ground, either from people who don’t know they’ve dropped theirs, or know they’ve fallen and intentionally leave them there.
Bailey said locals are getting tired of seeing the litter and are getting involved. The 2021 cleanup event, she said, was the most popular one in years.
Besides being an eyesore, she said litter has lasting impacts on a community.
“It goes without saying that when you have litter, or abandoned homes, or graffiti, or anything that looks bad, that there is a stigma that’s associated with that, and it affects the economy and people not moving to the area and people not feeling safe,” she said.
Keep Florence Beautiful provides all the necessary materials for anyone interested in conducting a cleanup. All volunteers need to do is tie the bags and place them on the side of the road, where they will be picked up.
Lyles encourages people to get involved with their local community coordinators or PalmettoPride. If a neighborhood has a homeowners association, she suggested putting messages about litter in newsletters and on social media.
“Start at home, in your neighborhood, and build that sense of responsibility from your house to your neighborhood,” she said.
Use the database below to find out how much litter was collected in South Carolina counties in 2019 and 2020.