Summertime means thousands of people flock to the beaches of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Alabama, for a day (or more) of fun in the sun. Parents load up the kids, chairs, tents, umbrellas, snacks, coolers, boogie boards, toys and towels. Before 2016, many folks would set up their “camp” on the beach upon arrival to stake their spot and leave everything out for the duration of their visit. Oftentimes, not wanting to haul everything home at the end of their visit, people would simply abandon many of these items and just leave them on the beach.
As the amount of clutter on the beach increased, it created hazards for first responders trying to rush to someone in distress. It also increased the number of obstacles mama sea turtles had to navigate to lay their nests. The clutter was also unsightly and destroyed the natural beauty of the top local attraction.
To remove these hazards and obstacles and protect their number one asset, the cities of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach adopted nearly identical ordinances commonly referred to as “Leave Only Footprints.” The initiative requires that all personal items be removed from the beach an hour after sunset or the items will be removed and disposed of by beach patrol personnel.
While the beach chair rental companies are exempt from the requirements of having to remove the chairs from the beach every night, they are being required to phase out the heavy wooden loungers by reducing 14 percent of their inventory every year for the next seven years. The wooden loungers are being replaced by lighter chairs that are more easily moved at the end of the day.
The cities also renewed enforcement of long-standing beach rules including no glass containers, no fires, no fireworks, no pets, no overnight camping and no vehicles. Metal shovels and excessive digging are forbidden and holes must be filled in before you leave the beach.
Great effort was made to ensure that visitors were not surprised by the new policies through widespread support of Gulf State Park, the Coastal Alabama Business Chamber, Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism, property management companies, residents and many other industry partners.
The cities also had personnel talking to beachgoers to make sure they understood the new Leave Only Footprint policies and to remind them to take their items with them when they left the beach.
In the first year of Leave Only Footprints, the cities collected more than 161 tons of material from the beaches, much of which was recycled through the City of Gulf Shores Recycling Center. That included 101 tons of trash, 18.5 tons of aluminum cans (about 814,000 of them!) and 18 tons of metal tent frames and chairs.
More than 5,600 trash bags were also distributed to beachgoers and some 2,000 holes were filled. In addition, there were more than 47,000 interactions with the public. The mama sea turtles also enjoyed having room to nest with 237 nests reported in 2016, greatly eclipsing the previous recorded high of 149 nests in 2012.
Now that we’re into the second year of Leave Only Footprints, the cities are reporting that the amount of items being collected is significantly less than last year due to greater awareness from outreach efforts. So far, there have been more than 81,000 public interactions. Warnings have been issued for glass on the beach (almost 2,000), tents (1,400), and holes (over 1,000 with about 770 filled in already). Nearly 1,000 trash bags have been distributed. Items collected have included 249 tents, 435 umbrellas, and 2,284 chairs.
The City of Orange Beach is recycling about 70 percent of items collected and has developed a partnership to recycle hard plastic beach toys into shampoo bottles. As for the mama sea turtles? With just over a month left in nesting season, there are more than 100 sea turtle nests so far.
And what has been the response from the visitors? While there have been a few complaints (particularly from people who have had their items removed overnight), the overwhelming majority of comments have been very supportive and thankful for the return of the beautiful beach views. Perhaps not surprisingly, one entrepreneur has started a beach valet service to transport beachgoers’ belongings to and from the parking lot.
For more information about the Initiative, including links to the official ordinances passed by the cities, please visit www.cleanisland.org and be sure to follow the campaign on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms. We hope to see you soon on our beaches, but please “Leave Only Footprints.”