Plastic bans have long been a top priority in Lowcountry communities, stretching from the beaches to point of sale in restaurants and businesses. Now, Isle of Palms is looking more deeply into its littering ordinances after hearing the staggering number of cigarette butts recovered from its beach.

In June 2018, councilmember Susan Hill Smith and residents launched a volunteer cleanup task force, Isle of Palms Cleanup Crew, to conduct weekly beach sweeps during the summer months. The findings after the inaugural season were evident that Isle of Palms beach has littering problem, more specifically a problem with throwing cigarette butts in the sand.

At the March 26 council meeting, during citizens’ comments, a man who’s not even a resident stepped up to the podium to voice his concern. Howard Hogue of Moncks Corner, popularly known to area residents as Beach Santa because of the uncanny resemblance, spends countless hours picking up trash on the beach. Locally known for his environmental efforts, Hogue records a log of all the trash he comes in contact with.

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Howard Hogue of Moncks Corner, known to many as Beach Santa, shows a log of trash he collected during one Isle of Palms Cleanup Crew beach sweep this summer.

“The proof is in the pudding,” he said. Hogue made 34 trips to the beach in 2018. During each visit he recorded his observations, categorized each type of trash and kept an ongoing tally:

  • Plastic straws/stirrers — 279
  • Cigarettes/filters — 5,138
  • Styrofoam — 744
  • Total (including miscellaneous items) — 10,283

In 2019, so far, Hogue has made 24 trips to Isle of Palms including the business district from Front Beach near The Windjammer up to 21st Avenue. This years count is higher and it’s on the first quarter of the year:

  • Plastic straws/stirrers — 426
  • Cigarettes/filters — 5,523
  • Styrofoam — 76
  • Total (including miscellaneous items) — 11,138

“When I’m doing this I enjoy making the place better than when I found it,” he said. “I set the example for people and I get a lot of interaction.”

To drive the point home, Hogue brought a prop for show and tell. He unveiled a container filled with 2,000 cigarette butts.

“I hope when you folks consider everything you’re considering tonight that you make the right decisions to ban certain things,” he added. “To keep it out of the ecosystem, to preserve the sea life, preserve the animals, seabirds and everything that’s affected by it.”

Smith says the amount of trash collected by the Isle of Palms Cleanup Crew is just a small fraction of what is out there. She said each week the supply of trash seemed to replenish equally if not greater.

“This is about messaging and also the fact that our other beach communities are doing it. If we’re all doing the same thing our message becomes stronger,” she said.

Councilmember Randy Bell said that if it’s about messaging then why are cigarettes not being treated with the same aversion as plastics. Bell, a non-smoker, said smoking may be an emotional habit but littering on the beach is not.

“I’m not saying you prohibit smoking on the beach but it’s a message,” he said. “Do we want to be leaders or do we want to wait for somebody else to do that?”

Bell didn’t make a motion for an amendment of the sort but implored the Public Works committee to look into more efficient ways of enforcement to discourage cigarette litter.

“Let’s be consistent with what we do. It’s OK to throw your cigarettes on the beach but by the way bring your plastic home with you,” he said sarcastically.

Councilmember Ted Kinghorn suggested enforcing a pack-in, pack-out policy to ensure the area of the beach being occupied stays liter-less. In further discussion, councilmember Jimmy Ward said the only way to cleanse the problem would be to ban smoking on the beach.

“Let it be clear that we’re trying to put Beach Santa out of business,” Kinghorn said.

Council considered expanding its ordinance to include the banning of cigarettes too. This effort was unsuccessful due to the interference with its point of sale restrictions, cited by interim administrator Desiree Fragoso. A separate ordinance with penalty is necessary to incorporate the prohibition of cigarette waste on the beach.

Councilmember Carol Rice, chair of Public Works, confirmed the committee will be looking into the cigarette issue later this month.

“We are basically penalizing people for leaving certain things and not penalizing people for leaving other things. The cups and the bags are low-hanging fruit,” said councilmember Ryan Buckhannon. “If you’re really concerned, the biggest item is your cigarette butts. I can understand how it would be difficult to banish. I’m not saying I’m in favor of outlawing it but truly that’s the source.”