William Miller always has a net ready.

Miller is the owner and operator of Charleston Sailing School, based in the Charleston City Marina. In the summer, when wind from the south blows against the marina, it blows trash that ends up tangled in spartina grass along the water's edge.

Almost every day, he spends time netting water bottles, detergent jugs and plastic bags out of the water.

"This is people's impression of Charleston," Miller said of tourists who stop in for an impromptu lesson.

Charleston Sailing School's boats all have nets aboard in case students and instructors spot a piece of trash on their way around the harbor.

They're already a step ahead of the American Sailing Association, an affiliation of sailing schools that creates a standardized curriculum for its roughly 400 worldwide members. This week, the ASA is kicking off "Operation Plastic Pollution Purge," an initiative to encourage its members to remove plastic from the water wherever they see it.

ASA is also changing its curriculum to encourage students not to bring single-use plastic on sailboats in the first place. 

"We’re the people out on the water, and we see this, and this is what we, in our limited capacity, can do about it," said Elbert Ashbaugh, director of field operations for ASA.

The program is part of a rising tide of public education and grassroots efforts to clean up and reduce the consumption of single-use plastics. Some organizers say getting individuals and businesses to sign on to plastic-reduction efforts voluntarily has become even more urgent as efforts to block plastics stall at some local governments.

There's also pushback against local law changes, as the plastics industry supported a bill in Columbia this year that would have stopped cities and towns from regulating "auxiliary containers." Legislators ultimately ran out of time this year to pass the prohibition on container bans, but the industry is likely to restart the effort in the next legislative session.


William Miller, operator of Charleston Sailing School and Yacht Charters, uses a butterfly net to scoop garbage out of the water on Wednesday, June 20, 2018. Miller always has the net with him when he sails so that he can catch debris in the water. Kathryn Ziesig/Staff

In places like the Grand Strand, where only the tiny town of Surfside Beach has enacted a plastic bag ban, grassroots efforts that get businesses to voluntarily give up plastic items have so far proved more effective than lobbying for new laws.

Cathy Tourloukis, founder of Plastic Free Myrtle Beach, said efforts to discuss plastic container restrictions with officials in North Myrtle Beach and Myrtle Beach haven't proved fruitful.

But in the meantime, she leads a small group of volunteers that ask restaurants to stop automatically giving out straws. "Strand Strawless Summer," in its inaugural year, is modeled after similar efforts in the Charleston area that started last summer. More than 170 restaurants in the Myrtle Beach area have signed on, Tourloukis said.

While plastic bag bans in a handful of coastal towns have gotten the most attention locally, large corporations and some countries are zeroing in on efforts to eliminate plastic straws. Mount Pleasant's ordinance restricting plastic bags also includes a provision for restaurants to reduce their straw use.

The vast majority of businesses in the Grand Strand are receptive to cutting back on plastic straws, Tourloukis said, though a few have said they don't want to make customers ask for items. 

"That’s their option," Tourloukis said. "There’s no law, so they can do what they want, it's their business. I’ll just go on to the next restaurant."

The Charleston chapter of the Surfrider Foundation spearheaded the original strawless summer and also have a program that designates restaurants as "ocean-friendly." That distinction requires cutting down on other single-use items, like plastic foam to-go containers and plastic utensils.

Marlo Shedlock, chair of the local Surfrider chapter, said reducing the single-use plastic that's used in the first place pays off down the line, because it reduces the need for litter pick-up programs. Plastic bags, in particular, can also cause costly delays in recycling plants

A 2014 study estimated that 5 trillion pieces of plastic float at sea.

Even if some plastic trash does eventually break down to the point where it's not perceptible to the naked eye, it's not really gone. Researchers at The Citadel found earlier this year that there are 7 tons of microscopic plastic particles in Charleston Harbor, and that most of those come from tires. They also found that "eco-plastic" alternatives meant to be biodegradable take as long or longer to break down than traditional plastics.

Sea life eat those particles, which work their way up the food chain and, eventually, onto the plates of humans. 


Captain Paul Klinges (right) teaches a sailing lesson on Wednesday, June 20, 2018 for the Charleston Sailing School. William Miller, the operator of Charleston Sailing School and Yacht Charters, has been working for years to make his company more eco friendly and instructs students on how to clean up the water and cut down on their own waste while sailing. Kathryn Ziesig/Staff

Small pieces of plastic also often clog up water-cooled systems on boats, Miller said. They get caught in screens that intake water to regulate air conditioning. 

While sailors are generally environmentally aware, Miller said, some boaters do contribute to the issue of pollution, even if accidentally.

Area boat ramps can become a prime location for plastic trash to be introduced into waterways. And in some cases, it's not easy to discard trash: on the Wappoo Cut boat ramp, under the Folly Road bridge over Wappoo Creek, there usually aren't enough trash and recycling cans for the large volume of boaters that move through, Miller said.

“You’ve got hundreds of people going out there, making trash, and looking for a place to put it," he said.

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Reach Chloe Johnson at 843-735-9985. Follow her on Twitter @_ChloeAJ.