Jim Meehan had a message for the Marlboro Menthol man.
Whomever had arranged the 20 or so cigarette butts in the sand near the waterline like tombstones in a miniature beachfront graveyard.
Meehan finished his sunset walk Monday and nailed a sign to a post at the beach access point near Sandpiper Street on Hilton Head Island.
“MARLBORO MENTHOL MAN,” the sign read, “(OR WOMAN)
“ON BEHALF OF THE TURTLES, FISH, CRABS, DOGS, AND HUMANS PLEASE DISPOSE OF YOUR BUTTS PROPERLY!!
“YOUR FIRST PACK CLEAN UP IS ON ME!
“THANKS!! ENJOY YOUR STAY!!”
It was the first time he’d made a sign like that, he said Wednesday. He’d picked up the cigarette butts and become angrier when he found more — Marlboro Menthols — scattered along the boardwalk. Meehan, who’s lived on Hilton Head “off and on for 26 years,” says he’s seen more litter on the beach this year. He’s used to picking up after people’s dogs on the beach, he said, but finding a hole with a half-dozen Michelob cans near the ocean at high tide is troublesome.
What’s more troubling, he said, is that he often sees people walk past litter and do nothing about it.
By Wednesday morning his sign was gone.
There was no sign of the Marlboro Menthol man.
Shore Beach Services hauls about 12 loads — meaning trailers, hauled behind the company’s ATVs — of waste off the beach a day, said operations manager Mike Wagner.
A decade ago on Hilton Head, he said, his company rarely used its dumping site on the north side of the island. Now it’s used daily. On the south end, closer to Coligny Beach, there are now three dumpsters that are routinely used for garbage and recycling. The company’s had to add dumpsters, Wagner said, like the two “40-yard roll-off” models that hold damaged and abandoned beach tents and canopies — which island residents have complained are unsightly and harmful to the environment.
“That’s one of the biggest things that’s increased in the last 10 years,” he said. “Now it’s daily we’re having to cut up discarded canopies with bolt cutters.”
Shore Beach Services patrols an area of 13.5 miles, Wagner said, and fills “about seven eight-yard dumpsters on average” a day.
Most of that trash is waste that’s been disposed of properly, he said, meaning it’s in bags taken from trashcans near beach access points. Still, his crews find abandoned beach chairs, like those lifeguard Vaughn Holmes hauled in the trailer behind his ATV late Wednesday afternoon.
Holmes was patrolling “Area 3,” the stretch of beach between beach markers 56A and 75 — the area Wagner says has the most trash. A lifeguard driving that stretch of beach would, on a typical day, have already hauled off two or three trailer loads of garbage by the time their late afternoon shift started.
There were just a few beach chairs in Holmes’ trailer Wednesday, and not many more bags of trash.
A few yards away from his red ATV was an abandoned sandcastle and a couple of plastic toys.
Four sea turtles have washed up on Hilton Head’s shores recently, according to Amber Kuehn, manager of the Coastal Discovery Museum’s Sea Turtle Protection Project.
“We call those ‘live strandings,’ ” she said, explaining the turtles washed up because of health problems.
Only one survived. It needed an enema. Because it had ingested a bunch of plastic.
Sea turtles will eat anything, Kuehn said, recalling how she’d found baby turtles with cigarette butts in their mouths. She’s found other turtles with fishing line around their fins, which sometimes have to be amputated. And leatherback turtles can confuse plastic bags floating in the water for jellyfish, their primary food source.
Beach litter can clog sea turtle nests, she said, which will kill hatchlings. And nesting sea turtles sometimes bump into abandoned beach tents and canopies, which causes them to head back to the sea and, often, release their eggs in the water.
Plastic that reaches the ocean can turn the water darker, making it harder for fish to feed, said Carlos Chacon, manager of natural history at the museum. Cigarette filters add toxic chemicals to the water, he said, and birds might confuse butts for food and feed it to their chicks.
Chacon, who captained September’s Beach Sweep — the annual statewide beach clean-up event — at Burkes Beach on Hilton Head, said his team picked up over 350 cigarette butts in a quarter-to-half-mile stretch of beach.
“Every year the most common item is cigarette butts,” he said. “And I think many people just don’t see that as litter. But they’re full of chemicals, and they get in the water and pollute the water.”
Coligny Beach — which Wagner and Kuehn consider the island’s dirtiest beach — was the site where Beach Sweep captain Phyllis Neville estimates she picked up “over 1,000” cigarette butts last year.
“Especially around Tiki Hut,” she said. “There’s always a lot of cigarette butts around there.”
Aside from the butts, plastic bottles were the largest source of trash, she said. During the 14 years she’s volunteered for the sweep, she’s found everything from swimsuit tops to syringes.
“And fishing line,” she said, “lots of fishing line.”
Neville’s team picked up 30 pounds of trash on the beach last year.
Chacon’s picked up 100.
In total, over 7,000 pounds of litter was picked up from Beaufort County’s beaches and waterways last year, according to data from the S.C. Sea Grant Consortium.
That’s up from over 4,000 pounds in 2014, and 3,000 in 2013.
Those numbers don’t necessarily indicate a trend — a variety of factors can impact litter pick-up on a single day of one year — and long-time residents such as Wagner and Kuehn say they haven’t noticed more trash on the beach this year.
As far as Meehan’s concerned, he’s just glad the Marlboro Menthol man (or woman) hasn’t reappeared.
He doesn’t know the culprit’s identity, he said.
But, as of Wednesday afternoon, he hadn’t seen any more Marlboro Menthols on the beach.
Maybe, he said, the culprit had gotten the message.
He’d found his sign earlier that day — in the trash.