“Fun-Sized” Rhode Island has a disconnect of Alaskan proportions when it comes to the handling of garbage at its state beaches. “There’s no question that it’s very hard keeping parks and beaches clean and welcoming on crowded days,” Janet Coit, director of the state Department of Environmental Management, said in a press release on July 3, urging beachgoers to pitch in to keep Rhode Island clean. What could be more patriotic, she added, than keeping America beautiful?

Those are lofty sentiments that ignore human nature, especially as it manifests itself in crowds. The real question is what to do about the trash buildup while people are actually at or near the beach. The DEM’s “carry-in / carry-out” rule, in effect since 1992, is not working. “This past Sunday it looked like a landfill,” the organizer of an informal group, the Misquamicut Waste Warriors, told our reporter last week. Not long ago, a letter writer on this page expressed the same opinion, saying there is no way to dispose of trash because there’s not a trash barrel in sight. She described the scene: “Bags upon bags, upon bottles, upon paper wrappers, upon foods, upon diapers … Not only the parking lots, but on the beach itself too. Terrible. It does not make a positive statement about the etiquette of our beach lovers or the state agency that manages it all!” We’ve printed similar letters in the past.

Why no trash containers? DEM did not go into the rationale, but it did describe the current system of managing litter: 1) At the entrance, parking attendants hand out small trash bags; 2) Rangers clean up trash during the day; and 3) After hours, contractors’ crews pick up trash. So far so good, but is there a contract provision that prohibits the placement of trash receptacles? If so, that defect could easily be remedied. Remember also that the state beaches are open only for seven hours per day. That gives plenty of time for 4) Crews to clean up excess litter and seaweed in the morning and to smooth the sand with tractor rakes.

It’s clear that the environmental agency does not want to be in the garbage business, and also that trash containers overflow if they’re not monitored and emptied. There are management preferences here, and labor expenses, and, as the DEM admits, “the sheer volume of customers during peak season inevitably strains services.” Misquamicut State Beach, with its half-mile shoreline and 2,100 parking spaces, surely is a headache, but if the state is intent on boosting itself as a tourism destination, it needs to keep its stellar attractions in good condition. 

The Waste Warriors are not waiting for the DEM to change its tune. They’ve taken it upon themselves to pick up refuse, including those ubiquitous plastic bags that people fill up and don’t bring home. The Misquamicut Business Association has also been doing its part to pick up litter along Atlantic Avenue. There’s been mention of tickets for littering, and perhaps the town’s plainclothes beach patrols, aimed at drinkers, could be extended to include flagrant litterers. Help may also be coming from the Westerly Town Council, which intends to discuss the installation of solar-powered trash-compactors for the municipal beaches in Misquamicut and near the tourist center on Atlantic Avenue.

Ultimately, we agree that it’s time for the state to rethink its no-trash-barrel policy. As our correspondent wrote: “Will it solve the issues perfectly? Probably not. There always will be people who don't care about their etiquette, but I do believe it will be a lot less of a problem than it is right now.” If you’re concerned about this issue, you should call your legislators. The town’s economy is highly dependent on tourism, which provides jobs and bolsters local government revenue with taxes from the sale of food, beverages, and hotel rooms. It’s no fun, and not good for business, to have a trashy reputation.

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