It may be easy to forget that cigarette butt you flicked out of the window while driving down the highway, but that inch or so of paper and tobacco will take five years to decompose, according to Palmetto Pride.
A Styrofoam cup can take 50 years to break down. A plastic bottle can take 450 years and a glass bottle – 1 million years.
Different kinds of litter have different impacts on the environment, but they can all mean big trouble for litterbugs if they're caught in the act by an Aiken County litter enforcement officer.
The County formerly had officers that handled litter and animal control but divided the jobs around 1991, according to Solid Waste Supervisor Rodney Cooper. Today, the County has two litter control officers and a chief litter control officer.
“They're really tied to littering fines,” Aiken County Administrator Clay Killian said. “If somebody throws a McDonald's wrapper out the window or a cigarette butt, they will stop you for that. They have to physically see it.”
The officers also investigate illegal dumping sites, according to Killian.
“Sometimes, unscrupulous roofing contractors will take a load of shingles out in the woods somewhere because they're so heavy, and getting them into the landfill is expensive,” he said. “They may have charged you as the homeowner to dispose of it, but that's how they make a little more money – they dump it in the woods somewhere.”
The officers may stake out an area if they see an increase in items such as tires, construction debris or yard trimmings dumped in that area, Killian said.
The County also has nuisance officers that respond to calls about burned out or dilapidated buildings or fields that need to be cleaned up.
“We've really been talking about consolidating them into an enforcement division, but we haven't done that yet,” Killian said.
The litter enforcement officers are not Class 1, like Sheriff's deputies or Public Safety officers, but Killian said they do go to the law enforcement academy and receive training in firearms and defensive driving.
They can also write tickets for secondary offenses such as seat belt violations, he said. Some litter stops have resulted in arrests for other crimes, including drug possession and driving under the influence.
“In fact, if we have a situation that they think is going to get out of control, they have a direct call to the Sheriff's Office to get help from those kinds of guys,” Killian said. “We're not out looking for those kinds of things. If they're going to a known dump site, or if they see an unsecured load, they'll stop you. That's what we're trying to do is prevent litter on the side of the roads.”
The officers drive around in white pickup trucks bearing the Aiken County logo, and can write warnings or citations, which are then settled with a magistrate.
Killian said the ratio of warnings to tickets is 3-to-1. In 2011, the officers wrote 107 tickets countywide.
In South Carolina, the minimum fine for littering is $200 and the maximum is $1,087. For any amount of litter over 15 pounds but less than 500 pounds, there is a fine of $200 to $500, mandatory community service and a possible prison sentence of up to 90 days.
Littering has been “an ongoing struggle” for Aiken County and beyond, Killian said. In the past, the County has had prison inmates go out to littered areas to clean up the trash.
“We've had a harder time getting inmates from lower Savannah just because of volumes,” Killian said. “You have to have people that are trained to supervise those folks when they're out on the side of the road. We'll work areas when people call and when we can get an inmate crew together. We just don't get to do it as much as we used to because, first of all, our employee level is not where it was, and we have trouble getting those inmates.”
The Adopt-a-Highway roadway cleanup program has become “a big asset” to the County, said Killian, who encouraged anyone interested in starting a group with their neighborhood, club or church to contact the County.
If you see someone littering or dumping illegally, call the Litter Busters hot line at *LB. That will connect callers to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, where they can leave a description of the vehicle, the tag number and location of the dump site.
“If it's out there on the side of the road, we're either going to pick it up or we're going to have an inmate crew pick it up, so it's costing the taxpayers to pick it up no matter what we do with it,” Killian said.
He added that littering has more drastic economic consequences, including negatively impacting the decision of large businesses to come to Aiken.
“It's a bad problem, and people need to understand that it's just not good to throw that stuff out,” Killian said. “Carry it home and put it in the house; we'll take care of it. Get it to our drop-off center; we'll take care of it.”
Teddy Kulmala covers the crime beat for the Aiken Standard. He is a graduate of Clemson University and hails from Williston.