Plastic bottles, cardboard boxes, discarded construction materials — those are just a few of the assorted items that have found a home along U.S. 278 in greater Bluffton recently.
Take a drive along Fording Island Road and it’s hard to ignore the amount of litter that lines the medians and shoulders of the roadway.
Tom Morin, a concerned resident who has lived in Bluffton for the past 16 years, said he doesn’t remember the roadway looking as bad as it does today.
“Tourism is our big industry here and the first statement we’re making to people who come off of I-95 and head down the main thoroughfare to Hilton Head is that we really don’t care about 278,” Morin said. “Honestly it’s like a practice area for littering.”
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Morin said the amount of litter on the road is a “direct contradiction” to the efforts Bluffton and other local municipalities are trying to make to protect the area’s natural beauty.
“I’ve never seen a tourist area look as crappy at 278,” he said. “Bluffton may be this ‘state of mind,’ but 278 is a ‘state of trash’... I just think it’s despicable.”
Since U.S. 278 is a state road and not under the jurisdiction of the Town of Bluffton or Beaufort County, the South Carolina Department of Transportation is in charge of the maintenance.
Crews from SCDOT pick up litter along the road about three to four times a year, including once the week before RBC Heritage, according to a spokesperson at the Department.
The crews do not operate on a set schedule and are often sent out after receiving an influx of complaints, the spokesperson said.
“SCDOT is responsible for maintenance on all state roads, but litter is not their No. 1 priority,” said Sarah Lyles, executive director of Palmetto Pride, a nonprofit focused on cleaning up litter. “They are more focused on things like pothole issues and are inundated with calls about taking care of the roads.”
Lyles, who coordinates the statewide Adopt-a-Highway efforts, said that is the reason the state relies primarily on volunteers for litter control.
“No one has resources to be out there cleaning up trash every day,” she said. “It’s not an ideal situation, but that’s why we rely so heavily on volunteers.”
Last year, more than 89,000 pounds of litter were picked up by volunteers in the Beaufort County Adopt-a-Highway program. But according to the program’s coordinator, Caroline Jordan, finding groups to claim sections of U.S. 278 can be difficult.
“We’re somewhat limited because of how dangerous it is,” Jordan said. “As a group, many are not comfortable with picking up in those areas. The liability for their volunteers is just too much to take on.”
Still, Jordan understands and shares the frustration of local residents who are concerned about the way U.S. 278 looks.
“Litter attracts litter, so when people see it’s dirty, they think no one cares and they’ll feel more comfortable throwing out their trash (onto the road),” she said. “In areas where you can tell (roads are) cared for, people will be more reluctant to toss something out the window.”
Three Adopt-a-Highway groups currently operate along sections of U.S. 278. The Sun City Lions Club cleans up the area from Cracker Barrel to the entrance of Sun City Hilton Head; a group named “In Memory of Neil Atherton” cleans up a strip in front of Hilton Head National; and the Moss Creek Owners Association cleans up in front of the neighborhood’s entrance.
Aside from the sections covered by an Adopt-A-Highway group, which add up to about four miles along U.S. 278, litter control along the roadway relies on SCDOT and a program from the Beaufort County Detention Center.
In 2011, the Beaufort County Detention Center established the Day Watch program, in which inmates can clean up litter along county roadways on Saturdays and Sundays as an alternative to confinement.
According to Quandara Grant, director of the detention center, some weekends five or 10 inmates take part in the program and other weekends there may be none. “It just depends how many are sentenced to the program that week,” she said.
SCDOT notifies Grant before crews go out to cut grass and the inmates will pick up the trash in that area ahead of time. Otherwise, Grant takes requests from residents and local officials about which areas need the most work.
Inmates in the program cleaned U.S. 278 on five separate occasions in 2017, according to Grant.
“We’re responsible for the whole Beaufort County area, so if we do 278 this week then we probably won’t get back to that area for another few weeks,” she said.
In the past three years, Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office has only written six citations for littering along U.S. 278 in Bluffton. The minimum fine for littering in South Carolina is $200.
A Stark Contrast to Hilton Head
Driving down U.S. 278 from Bluffton onto Hilton Head or vice versa, residents and visitors can see a noticeable difference in the amount of litter that lines the roadway.
Unlike in the Bluffton area, the Town of Hilton Head Island does not rely on SCDOT to maintain the median and shoulders of U.S. 278 or the rest of its roadways.
In the 1980s, shortly after the town was incorporated, Hilton Head voted to create contracts for the maintenance operations.
The companies contracted with the town provide all shoulder and median maintenance such as mowing, palm tree pruning, shrub preservation and litter control.
“The contracts are essential to providing the esthetics people expect when they come to visit the Island and for those who live here,” said Alice Derian, assistant facilities manager for the town.
The town spends $785,000 annually on five separate contracts for U.S. 278, Cross Island Parkway, Pope Avenue, as well as the north island, mid-island and south island generally, according to Derian.
The contracts all have litter control written in, but the frequency depends on the amount of traffic in the area. For instance, the high traffic corridors — U.S. 278, Cross Island Parkway and Pope Avenue — are picked up seven days a week, Derian said.
Anybody wants to join or start an Adopt-A-Highway group can contact Caroline Jordan at email@example.com or 843-441-3849.