August 2019

Talking Trash: Hilton Head Trash Heroes expose our dirty little secrets

Author: Linda S. Hopkins | Photographer: M.Kat Photography

Darci Everett, Dr. John Batson, Dr. Jean Fruh, Thor, Mick and Stephanie Pullon spend Mother’s Day morning cleaning up a creek by the Hilton Head Rowing Center. In barely an hour they had gathered up bags and bags of trash, along with larger items that Mick had to break down with his chainsaw.

While fictional heroes are usually depicted as characters with supernatural abilities, most real-life heroes are a lot like you and me. Hilton Head Trash Heroes is a group of people who walk among us, seeming like ordinary humans with jobs, families, and full calendars. Yet they somehow manage to muster enough time and energy to use their powers for good.

Picture a local doctor, a successful building contractor, a tenured professor, and a teenager spending their weekends knee-deep in pluff mud, digging plastic and Styrofoam out of the marsh and dragging truckloads of trash out of our waters (and sometimes off the streets). It’s their mission to help clean up the planet, one piece of trash at a time, starting right here in the Lowcountry.

Hilton Head Trash Heroes didn’t begin its mission with a fundraiser, a grant, or a fancy website. It began with one man’s daily observations and willingness to invest a bit of himself back into his community. “I’ve always done a lot on the water—kayaking and now standup paddle boarding,” said Dr. John Batson, a pain management physician and sports medicine specialist who grew up on Hilton Head Island and is now practicing medicine at Lowcountry Spine and Sport in Bluffton. “Just being in the marsh, you start to see things. Years ago, I could go out and pick up a couple of pieces of trash. Nowadays, I’m filling my boat up with trash, and it’s overflowing.”

With heightened awareness of the trash accumulating in our marshes, Batson began paying more attention to street litter as well. “We see a lot around the Cross Island Parkway and the flyover. There’s clearly a trend in association with our roadways,” he said. “Near my office [on New River Parkway near Sun City], I’ve been walking a half-mile stretch and picking up what I see. I’ll fill up a bag. And that’s just people throwing it out … you can tell. It’s vodka bottles and little mini-bottles, plastic bags. What I see in the marsh is a lot of construction stuff, Styrofoam packing, single-use cups, plastic bags. You definitely start seeing trends of what’s out there the more you do it.”

Occasionally, Batson would post pictures on social media of his individual trash hauls, and people began to take note, including Mick Pullon, a general and mechanical contractor who also grew up in the area. The two reconnected and joined forces to clean up around the flyover.

“I remember one day right before Heritage, noticing how much debris was in the water there,” Pullon said. “Every time we hit the flyover, we would fill up a pickup truck—tires, bottles, plastic bags … it ends up being 200-300 pounds.” (Pullon advises anyone hauling trash or construction materials to cover and secure it so it doesn’t blow out on the bridges.)

Like Batson, Pullon was inspired to clean up the waterways he personally enjoys and, at the same time, teach his son Thor a lesson in environmental stewardship. “We’re on the water a lot—surfing, kayaking, paddle boarding, fishing, etc. We’re geared toward the outside and towards our beautiful estuaries and beaches that we’re blessed with,” he said.

A rising junior at Hilton Head Prep, Thor began going out on beach cleanups with The Outside Foundation, a local organization dedicated to getting kids outside and protecting the environment. He has earned the Mayor’s Service Award four years in a row, an honor bestowed on students who perform 150-plus hours of community service. The majority of his service has been beach cleanups, which led him to follow in his dad’s footsteps, cleaning up the waterways on weekends.

“That’s how we went from doing one or two cleanups a year to more frequent missions,” Pullon said. “It’s something to do and sets a good example for my son to be responsible and maybe helps other people understand.”

Now that the flyover area is getting clean and regenerating less often, Pullon said he goes scouting. “I find the little pockets where the plastics, the bottles and the Styrofoam collect. I recently decided to check out the rowing center to see if it would be a good place to put in my paddle board. I was astonished by the amount of debris that had collected there. Little creeks kind of act like a net with the winds,” he explained.

While Hilton Head Trash Heroes isn’t a tightly organized or strictly scheduled group, a growing number of volunteers are now following the activities and joining in when they can. They tackle the boat landings and take requests when people report trash out in the marsh.

“Sometimes we do it in a boat, sometimes on foot—depending on what the tide is,”
Pullon said. “When you’re out in a boat or a kayak, you can actually cover more ground, and it’s a little more fun. But you don’t get the volume we get when we pull up with the truck.”

On a recent Sunday, six volunteers cleaned up at the Palmetto Bay area. “We filled up a pickup truck and a 14-foot trailer,” Pullon said. With permission, the group unloaded their haul in an area dumpster. “It filled up a third of a 30-yard dumpster—10 cubic yards of debris. It was 1,000 pounds. It’s unbelievable.”

Dr. Jean Fruh, former professor, master naturalist, and current executive director of The Outside Foundation, got wind of Batson’s efforts through his service on The Outside Foundation’s board of directors and has become a frequent participant in the HH Trash Heroes’ cleanup projects. “I try to support them in whatever they are doing, because they are having an amazing impact. It becomes a little contagious,” she said. “It’s grass roots. Where I come from and where the foundation comes from is very much grass roots—linking into and creating momentum within the environment, connecting people to what we think are valuable projects, tangible experiences. A lot of times I tag along on great projects someone else thought about. And that’s exactly the case with Trash Heroes. It’s Mick and John’s passion to develop it, and I’ve come along to support, provide some energy, and provide some volunteers when I can.”

In her position with The Outside Foundation, Fruh spends her days supporting a broad range of environmental causes, actively participating, educating, and encouraging others to get involved. “We have to be the change,” she said. “Too many people think the government is going to be the answer to everything. This island was built on covenants; they make a difference and we need to uphold them. But it was also built upon a woman standing in front of a plow saying, ‘You will not cut this tree down.’ It was built upon that type of spirit. We have to be the stewards of this island. We need to advocate and take that younger generation along with us—set the example by showing them, not telling them.”

Why it matters
There is no denying that trash impacts our environment far beyond being an eyesore or inconvenience. “When you start to see animals—dolphins, turtles, whales—come up with mass amount of plastic they have mistaken as food, obviously just one piece of plastic can make a difference,” Batson said. “Just yesterday, I was paddle boarding in the middle of the sound, and this piece of plastic looks just like a jellyfish. So, I turned around and picked it up—not a big deal. That could have very easily been eaten by a turtle or a dolphin.”

Batson also points out the financial incentive and health implications because so much of our industry here is seafood related. “We look at the problem of microplastics. Once these things start to degrade down, they don’t just go away. They’re these little microplastic beads that are getting somewhere. A lot of studies say they are showing up in the small critters in the sea—the oysters and the shrimp. It gets in them and then that gets in us.”

And it’s certainly not healthy for our tourism industry. Hilton Head Island was founded on principles of preservation. We have an international reputation for protecting and maintaining the natural beauty that exists here. As residents take more pride in keeping our roads and waterways clean, perhaps our visitors can also be led to help us preserve what they come here to enjoy.

Trash Gone Wild
• According to a University of Georgia study, 18 billion pounds of plastic trash winds up in our oceans each year. To put that in perspective, it’s enough trash to cover every foot of coastline around the world with five full trash bags of plastic…compounding every year.
• The five most common items found in coastal cleanups around the world are all single-use plastics. They are: plastic cigarette butts, food wrappers, plastic beverage bottles, plastic bottle caps, and plastic straws and drink stirrers.
• There are 25 trillion pieces of plastic debris in the ocean. Of that, 269,000 tons float on the surface, while some four billion plastic microfibers per square kilometer litter the deep sea.
• Plastics cause more than 80 percent of the negative effects on animals associated with ocean trash.
• There is an island of garbage twice the size of Texas inside the Pacific Ocean: the North Pacific Gyre off the coast of California is the largest oceanic garbage site in the entire world. It’s here that the number of floating plastic pieces in the water outnumbers total marine life six to one in the immediate vicinity.
• Ocean pollutions kills more than one million sea birds each year.
• Research estimates anywhere from 15 to 51 trillion particles of floating micro plastic are in our oceans, weighing between 205-520 million pounds. This includes plastic microbeads (used as exfoliates in some personal care products) and synthetic fibers, both of which are too small to be filtered out by many waste water treatment plants.
• Approximately 4 billion pounds of trash per year enters the ocean.
• Approximately every square mile of ocean has more than 45,000 pieces of plastic floating in it.
• Over 100,000 marine animals die every year from plastic entanglement and ingestion.
• It’s estimated that by the year 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish (by weight).
• Fish and other marine life often can’t tell the difference between plastic and food. If the animal eats plastic, they can’t digest it. The plastic fills their stomachs, so they starve to death.
• Approximately one truckload of plastic enters the ocean every single minute.
• The waste in the ocean takes a long, long time to decompose. Styrofoam takes 80 years; aluminum takes 200 years; and plastic takes 400 years.
• There’s enough plastic in the ocean to circle the Earth 400 times.
• Chemicals in heavily polluted waters can make their way back to us and cause serious health issues like reproductive problems, hormonal problems, kidney damage, and nervous system damage.



Keep the Broad Creek Clean Water Festival
When: Thursday, August 15 from 4-7 p.m.
Where: Shelter Cove Harbour & Marina.
What: This unique event is a fun way for locals and visitors to learn about all the clean water efforts currently underway in our community. A variety of local eco organizations will present interactive exhibits, crafts and activities for the whole family.

The event kicks off with a kayak-based cleanup of the creek from 3-5 p.m., followed by dockside activities from 4-7 p.m., a raffle drawing at 6:30 p.m., and live music from Shannon Tanner at 7 p.m.

For more information, visit

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