By JOY CRIST
In August of 2016, the Island Free Press posted a story about the growing concern of beach gear being left behind on the shore overnight – or even abandoned altogether after an island vacation.
It wasn’t a new topic by any means, but at the time, both Irene and I had an inkling that the problem of “stuff left behind” was worse in 2016 than in the years before. We both noted going to the beach in the evenings or in the early morning hours, and coming across those big metal tent frames, or piles of broken beach chairs and umbrellas that were deposited next to the dune line or a nearby trash can.
And it looks like the wave of abandoned beach items is a topic that continues into 2017 as well.
In the past month, we’ve received a couple comments and emails about things left behind on the beach, and several folks have said that while they’re not sure if the presence of abandoned beach gear is better or worse than 2016, it’s still certainly noticeable.
So why is this happening, what’s the harm, and who is cleaning the mess up?
All good questions to consider, but let’s start with the easiest question first – which is who is cleaning up our collective mess.
The Folks who Clean Up our Beach Junk
You can’t talk about beach clean-up without singling out the efforts of the Avon Property Owners Association, which is an operation that is managed by Treasurer Rick Anzolut.
The Avon Property Owners Association, (in conjunction with the Greater Kinnakeet Shores Homeowners, Inc. and the Kinnakeet Shores Property Owners Association), is unique in that it uses some of the funds it collects to station 75 trash cans along the beach shoreline within the Avon village limits.
In addition, they have a contractor that patrols the beach 2-3 times per week during the summertime, (depending on visitor volume), and removes the trash and abandoned beach equipment that’s often left behind on the edge of the area trash cans. This is all done with permission from the National Park Service - which allows the contractor to drive along the village beaches for trash pick-up and also provides the trash bags - as well as area businesses that lend their dumpsters.
“It’s really done as a convenience for anyone who visits the beach,” explains Anzolut. “For those who walk the beach, if they see a piece of trash, they can pick it up and discard it easily in the cans... We also do it so folks don’t have to haul [trash and discarded items] back to the cottage.”
The totals for 2016 in terms of what the APOA contractor collected is pretty staggering, and includes:
- 3329 bags of trash
- 383 beach chairs
- 251 umbrellas
- 119 canopy frames
- 206 boogie boards
And while it’s hard to gauge how these numbers compare to 2017 so far, there’s already been quite a few items picked up as of July 13, which includes the following:
- 1,113 trash bags
- 144 chairs
- 95 umbrellas
- 40 canopies
- 58 boogie boards
The program has been in place for roughly 10 years, and even though it makes it much easier to discard beach trash and beach gear on a local Avon level, it should be noted that too many items that are left behind can potentially lead to more runs, and more costs involved to run the program. It’s a situation that hasn’t really come to fruition yet, but is worth noting before people get gung-ho and start bringing all their stuff to the local trash cans on the Avon beaches.
As for the other island towns, this is where it gets a little trickier.
The National Park Service patrols the beaches within the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and looks for “stuff” that’s left behind from sunset to sunrise.
“When this happens, we post tags on the items which are warning and educational tags to let folks know these items can’t be left on the beach overnight,” explains Boone Vandzura, Chief Ranger for the NPS Outer Banks Group. “If we come back the next day and they are still there, we are permitted to take them.”
Once the items have been removed by the National Park Service, visitors can still get their stuff back – but it may require a little effort. “They can call the Park Service general number, and depending on where it was picked up, it will be at the Bodie Island ranger station or the ranger station in in the Hatteras area,” says Vandzura. “From there, we can then direct them towards where it would have been picked up.”
And getting these items back will also result in a fine. It seems strict on the surface, but it’s a measure that results in a better and more pristine beach for everyone. “Our goal is not to write people tickets – our goal is to have an orderly beach,” says Vandzura. “But it is a violation of the law to leave [this type of] property unattended between sunset and sunrise.”
In addition to the National Park Service, the APOA, and other local organizations that regularly sponsor beach clean-ups, (like the North Carolina Beach Buggy Association), a good chunk of beach gear is removed by locals.
Jim is a Salvo resident who, along with a number of other locals, regularly picks up items that were “left behind” from visitors who seem to have since left the island.
“There’s an average of two [canopy frames] in the morning, but there are three right now that have been there for a couple of days,” he says of his local beach close to Wimble Shores Drive South in Salvo. “There’s also an inner tube under one of the [frames] – the heat has been getting to it, so it’s been blowing up like a balloon.”
This is where things can get problematic.
When items are regularly left behind, it generally takes large scale clean-up efforts to address the issue – as evident by the 2-3 pick-ups per week operation of the APOA.
And even then, it’s not unusual to see stuff left behind in the evening hours, or in the early morning hours, or during any time of the day, really, where folks want to claim a good spot, but don‘t want to be at the beach all the time.
And with just a handful of resources to address the issue – especially when compared to the sheer miles of beach to cover – the abandoned beach gear can start to be a noticeable occurrence.
Why Leaving Stuff Behind is a Problem
Just to get it out of the way, first and foremost, leaving stuff behind on the beach overnight is not permitted. According to Section 36 CFR 2.22 of the seashore's laws and policies, "the placement of unattended property on the beach, such as, but not limited to chairs, toys, umbrellas, canopies, coolers, etc. is prohibited between sunset and sunrise.”
But on a practical level, there’s actually a few real world consequences of leaving stuff behind – whether it’s for a night, or indefinitely.
For one thing, having canopy or tent frames on the beach can be an obstruction for emergency personnel who need to access the beach at night for a call. These items can be hard to see after hours, and an emergency response vehicle heading down the beach at night shouldn’t have to go through any obstacles to get to where they need to be.
For another, it does affect the local wildlife. “One of the objectives [of this rule] is to protect the sea turtles, so that sea turtles coming up the beach don’t get tangled up in unattended beach equipment,” says Ranger Vandzura. This applies to both the sea turtles laying eggs, as well as the hatchlings which start to pop out in mid-to-late summer, and who need a clear path when making their initial mad dash to the ocean.
And finally, it’s for pure aesthetic value.
“It also just for a clean beach, so folks who are walking around don’t have to see tents and canopies that are set up,” says Vandzura. “At sunset and sunrise, the beach is more pristine.”
He’s right about that.
Salvo resident Jim sent us a picture of a gorgeous tri-village sunrise that somehow lost its appeal with the black tent frame in the foreground. (A smart photographer can be seen in front of the frame, taking an unobstructed photo.)
And part of the reason why our island is so popular is because our beaches are so bare. Even in the heart of Avon, or Salvo, or Hatteras, or Rodanthe, or wherever, you can walk out at 7 in the morning or night and generally enjoy an unobstructed piece of shoreline to yourself.
But when stuff is left overnight – whether it’s a tent, a frame, or a collection of beach chairs – a little of that magic is lost.
“We want safe enjoyment of the beaches by all of our users,” says Vandzura. “[These items] are harmful to wildlife if left unintended, and change the pristine landscape.”
Why this is Happening, and What Can be Done
If I were a betting woman, I would say that stuff is being left behind on the beaches en masse for either one of two reasons – unawareness or laziness.
Now don’t get me wrong. I am literally one of the laziest people you will ever meet. I just bought one of those beach chairs that straps to your back so I don’t have to haul it with my hands, (perish the thought.) Also, I live on the soundside of N.C. Highway 12, and I will literally drive across the street to park when visiting my local beach, because walking an extra block and crossing the highway when it’s hot outside is ridiculously unappealing.
I’m putting this info out there as a sad way to say that I get it – hauling a broken canopy or tent frame back with you when you already have so much stuff to bring back is a real pain.
And, admittedly, once you get your broken gear back to a motel room or vacation home, options for disposal aren’t always ideal. Discarded equipment that is left at the curbside – particularly if it’s a huge item – might not be picked up by the sanitation department. There are several big item pick-ups per year, but generally, trash pick-up is restricted to what’s in the cans.
It can also be hard for newcomers to determine where big items can be disposed of. The Buxton Transfer Station is arguably the best solution - as is just bringing it home - but granted, there is an inconvenience factor in both of these solutions.
Then there’s the issue of unawareness, which I would guess is a more prevalent problem.
After all, many folks do not realize that you legally can’t leave stuff overnight on the beaches – honestly, I wasn’t positive about this until the aforementioned August 2016 article.
And many others may not realize that leaving their stuff behind after they depart can cause a serious issue. When you’re enjoying the beach and relaxing, you’re not thinking about sea turtles, emergency vehicle access, or just what the shoreline will look like when you’ve retired for the day – you’re just enjoying an awesome day at the beach. And that’s completely understandable.
The good news is that several sources have noted that area vacation rental companies are being proactive in getting the word out that items should not be left behind. And considering that the majority of our summer visitors stay in vacation rentals, this does a world of good.
“We’ve done more outreach to the realty companies asking if they can help us get the word out,” says Vandzura. “And we appreciate all the support from the rental offices.”
So, in essence, folks should follow the “haul out what you haul in” policy, and should help spread the word – in as non-obnoxious way as possible – that leaving stuff behind is never a good idea.
Regardless if you’re leaving equipment behind for just for a few hours – or for all of eternity – it’s always a good idea to take back what you brought, and to leave nothing behind but footprints when it comes to our local beaches.
“Bring it back every night - that’s what we want folks to do,” says Vandzura. “We get new visitors every week, so the locals know what the rules are, but for the brand new visitors, we need to educate them.”