Hilton Head Island community leaders pitching in for beach sweep

tbarton@islandpacket.comNovember 11, 2013 

For years, Hilton Head Island has received accolades from travel websites and environmental groups for its expansive and peaceful beaches.

Last year, the island beat out the Sunshine State and others, including Hawaii, in an online contest to determine which has the best beach.

Keeping that beach looking pretty, though, isn't easy -- it requires planning, perseverance and lots of money. The town has spent about $46 million since 1990 to combat and stay ahead of sand erosion, for example.

It also requires community involvement, according to Dan Burger, S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Services director of coastal services.

"Hilton Head Island has a long history and strong reputation for environmental stewardship, and the beaches here are some of the finest in the country," Burger said. "But even the best beaches need a little extra care."

More than 40 community leaders, school groups, businesses and representatives from the hospitality industry will gather Tuesday at Marriott's Barony Beach Club on Hilton Head to push for DHEC's Adopt-a-Beach program and conduct a beach sweep. They will be joined by officials from the town, the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce and DHEC.

Since 1992, more than 40 organizations have collected between 2,000 and 6,000 pounds of trash annually on South Carolina beaches -- and DHEC estimates about 12 tons of debris have been collected from state beaches over the past 20 years.

In all, 10 island organizations have collected nearly 800 pounds of debris from Hilton Head beaches over the past five years, Burger said.

"Marine debris is a chronic problem that is often caused unintentionally, and these partners are our front line of defense," Burger said.

Simply bringing a picnic lunch to the beach can introduce plastic, paper and metal to the environment, he said.

Smokers, for example, often assume their filters are paper or cotton and will easily disintegrate. Not true. Cigarette filters are 97 percent cellulose acetate -- a type of plastic that can persist in the environment for months or even years, Burger said.

Fortunately, public awareness has increased, and participation in the Adopt-A-Beach program has grown in recent years, he said.

"The program is founded on the principle that when the beach is clean, everyone wins," Burger said. "Families have a place to relax and unwind, businesses enjoy a steady stream of vacationers and day-trippers, and wildlife can feed, nest and live safely."

More can be done, said Marriott Vacation Club spokesman James Woelbern.

Marriott associates adopted four miles of Hilton Head beach four years ago, after years of conducting informal beach sweeps, and have since adopted two more miles.

Woelbern said the company plans to challenge the public to adopt the remaining eight to nine miles of Hilton Head coastline.

"Preserving our environment is an issue communities and local businesses must work at together ... to ensure this resource and very popular vacation destination is preserved for enjoyment by future generations," he said.

Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/IPBG_Tom.

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