Here’s how hundreds of hotel towels end up on Hilton Head’s beaches every night

It’s towel season on Hilton Head Island.

Beachgoers and turtle activists have been reporting large piles of resort towels left on the beach to clutter the surf, stop sea turtles in their tracks and threaten local wildlife.

Although wildlife activists say they see leftover towels every year, this year’s piles are catching the eye of town officials.

Recent photos of towels littering the beach have received so much attention that the Town of Hilton Head Island intervened —announcing last week at a public meeting that staff has contacted general managers from every major beachfront resort to eliminate towel litter.

Towels left on the beach create hazards for humans and hatching sea turtles. They also clutter the island’s most frequented attraction.

“It’s not a traditional type of litter, but its akin to that: leaving things on the beach that shouldn’t be there,” assistant town manager Josh Gruber said Thursday morning.

Gruber confirmed town staff has contacted the Westin Hilton Head Island Resort and Spa, Marriott Hilton Head Resort & Spa, Omni Hilton Head Oceanfront Resort and Sonesta Resort Hilton Head Island, all of which are oceanfront.

towels 6.jpg
Dale Mathe Special to The Island Packet

The Turtle Trackers organization picks up trash and fills in holes on the beach each night, but some are concerned about the heaps of water-logged towels.

“I’m willing to go out every morning and most evenings and pick up what tourists don’t pick up, but the towels are just too big of a task to drag around and get out of the way,” Sharon Lewis said Thursday.

Gruber said it “baffled” him that the hotels “wouldn’t want to address [the issue] themselves,” because “that’s money.” Hotel pool and beach towels can cost upward of $20,000 each year, according to Jay Wiendl at the Sonesta Resort.

He said Sonesta was included on the email from town officials to major hotel general managers, and Sonesta employs loss prevention officers to sweep the beach at night for the hotel’s recognizable orange towels.

Wiendl said that guests have to check towels in and out from the pool area — a policy the hotel started about two years ago.

But they can’t get them all, and local activists want to see more done to prevent the piles.

“The town should fine the hotels, and hotels should charge people for taking a towel,” Dale Mathe, a member of the Turtle Trackers organization in Palmetto Dunes, said Thursday. “It’s cheaper to buy new towels than to pay someone to go out there and pick them up. That’s the (hotel’s) attitude.”

Town of Hilton Head Island

The town’s attempts to reach out to hotels may have made a difference. Following the email, Warren Woodard, director of sales and marketing for the Omni, said the resort is going to “double its efforts” and assign staff to sweep the beach once per hour for abandoned towels.

How do towels end up in heaps on Hilton Head’s beach?

Mathe explained that piles of towels are typically left over from beach rental chairs, which are rented in a partnership with the town, the Shore Beach Service lifeguards and beachfront hotels.

Here’s how it happens:

  • In the morning, lifeguards place town-owned rental chairs and blue umbrellas on the beach.
  • Beachgoers rent the chairs through the lifeguards, not the hotels. When they’re finished with the chairs, they leave the towel on the chair.
  • At 5 p.m., Shore Beach lifeguards remove the rental chairs from the beaches. They leave the hotel towels in piles for the hotels to pick up and clean.
Dale Mathe Special to The Island Packet

“I would like to see the hotels come out and collect the towels at 5 p.m.,” Mathe said.

She said she picked up over 400 hotel towels on the beach last season and donated them to local animal shelters.

Related stories from Hilton Head Island Packet

Katherine Kokal moved to South Carolina in 2018 after graduating from the University of Missouri and loves everything about the Lowcountry that isn’t a Palmetto Bug. She has won South Carolina Press Association awards for in-depth and government beat reporting. On the weekends, you can find Kati doing yoga and hiking Pinckney Island.