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An Ocean’s Disease and What’s Being Done About It

When COVID-19 had finally hit American soil a year ago, it forced a lot of people to stay indoors. They eventually grew tired of their four walls and decided to enjoy the many benefits that nature has to offer, while practicing social distancing of course. They branched out to local parks, beaches, and nature trails. These kind of places became very populated. Restaurants were also seeing a good amount of income because so many people were ordering take out. The issue is that when people leave nature and places like the beach specifically, their trash stays and lingers. In its busiest season last year, people were leaving Tybee beach a mess, which further compromised our aquatic ecosystem. The group at the forefront of saving Tybee Beach from litter is a non profit organization called Tybee Clean Beach.

Tybee Clean Beach was founded around five years ago when a resident of Tybee named Tim Arnold was tired of nothing serious being done about the problem from a higher level. He would go to town hall meetings and try and shed more light on the issue as a Tybee resident, but no one was really paying attention so he decided to take things into his own hands. “We decided to become a group— a non profit, a 501c3 to allow us to attract grant money and buy equipment and a van and drive around the island and advertise beach clean ups and wow did they catch on...,” he explained enthusiastically.

The residents of Tybee beach were pretty divided on the issue. Half of the residents were quick and eager to join in, while the other half felt like it was a waste of time. Unfortunately, the kind of people who don’t see it as much of an issue are usually the ones that are creating the most litter.

Restaurants on the beach, such as Wet Willy’s, massively contribute to the issue as their to-go trays are usually non biodegradable and they add an extra three plastic bags and four extra plastic spoons, forks, and straws to their increased volume of take out orders. Tim has gone to some of these restaurants to request that they look into more environmentally friendly products, but majority of the problem for them is that it’s simply too expensive and they would be losing more money than the money coming in. So they go with the most affordable option, like any business naturally would. The costumers take their to-go orders and head straight for the beach, some heavily intoxicated with alcohol to mention as well due to the open container rule on Tybee. They completely disregard the no littering signs and the no glass signs and leave a trail wherever they go on the beach.

More recently, Tybee Clean Beach did succeed in a partnership with Mermaid Cottages for their re-beachable program. It’s a program meant to raise awareness about plastic pollution as well as making use of toys that were discarded on the beach. They aim to place one bag of cleaned and recycled toys in every cottage starting this Spring.

That is definitely a huge step in the right direction considering that some ideas have unfortunately failed in the past. For instance, with help from the Marine Science Center, Tybee Clean Beach was able to thoroughly clean the toys in the past and put them in a bucket at the entrance of the beach for families to see and use. That idea failed when people began to throw trash into the bucket and drunkards also completely disrespected it by defecating into it. Officials have considered prohibiting the open container rule because of issues like that as well as fights that break out because after all, Tybee is a family beach. They took it off the table when they realized it would cause a lot of tension within the community.

Many people go to the beach to enjoy a nice alcoholic beverage and these bottles and cans are found all over the beach but that is only scratching the surface. The most common item found on Tybee Beach is cigarette buds. Some of them on the surface, while others need to really be dug at a little to find. As I was documenting one of the Tybee Clean Beach events and speaking with Tim, I discovered that he has a serious eye for trash as he noticed a cigarette bud stuck in between two slabs of wood on 15th street. The way the cigarette bud was placed showed that it was very intentional and these are usually the kind of people that throw their litter into the dunes all over the beach.

“We have a word for these kinds of people, we call them trash-holes,” he told me as he picked the cigarette bud out of the wood.

Earlier this year, they actually banned the use of cigarettes around 15th street and the pavilion. However, when the clean up groups go to pick up litter in that area, they still find a shocking amount of cigarette buds. It’s hard to enforce such a rule on people when they know they aren’t being watched which means that no one around will do anything about it. When I asked Tim if he thinks that people who are caught littering on the beach should be fined, he said absolutely. “We once had a group of people who came from jail. I didn’t want to pry too much but I asked one of the ladies what she was in for. She said she got fined for being caught on the beach with her dog and it was a fine that she could not pay,” he said. The sign is all over Tybee and it specifically says No Pets on Beach. Ironically, there is always a sign right underneath that one that says No Littering. She didn’t follow one sign and it ended her up in jail cleaning up the litter of people who don’t follow the sign right underneath it. People would definitely take littering more seriously if they were put into a very similar situation. Tim said it would make people think if they had to really be forced to see the litter all over the beach and how they are contributing to it.

Tybee Clean Beach also has clean up events in the off season. As it is now January, it’s Tybee beaches off season. Majority of the families that stayed past November, because they were schooling and working from home, are now gone. They still have schools and clubs coming by but they aren’t finding as much litter as they will be when March comes.

Change happens on a smaller level, it starts with you, and it starts with me. But when I asked Tim how he has seen the most change in how people treat the beach over the years, he said it has been through children.

“The change comes from children seeing it and then forcing their parents to see it as well,” he says, “We save everything we can find on the beach and sometimes artists will come and salvage through what we have to make a piece on pollution and litter.” They even partnered up with SCAD’s performing arts department a couple years ago to do a performance piece in one of the most populated squares downtown. An artist had a display up once using items from Tybee Clean Beach and majority of the audience came from children stopping their parents because they were intrigued by art piece, only to step closer and see that it was made out of trash.

Tim Arnold didn’t think it would take off like it did but Tybee Clean Beach has really created a movement. So much so that a new sustainable restaurant that just opened up, called Sea Wolf of Tybee, threw them a party after a volunteer clean up event in November. They plan on hosting inaugural non-profit fundraisers events once a month for local non profit organizations as a way of giving back to the community. North Beach Bar and Grill even donated all aluminum can recycling proceeds to Tybee Clean Beach which came out to a total over $700. These are all positive outcomes to five years of hard work. It doesn’t go unnoticed by the Tybee residents and regular beachgoers alike, as they are always eager to pick up a bucket and help out whenever they see Tim or the van outside of the beach. It’s hard to miss the van so if you see it when next you're at the beach and want to help our aquatic ecosystem, feel free to ask for a bucket. After all, they’re very welcoming and friendly people.

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