The Outer Banks: A beautiful reminder of the planet's vulnerability.

The Outer Banks: A beautiful reminder of the planet's vulnerability.

  • Posted by Dion Hughes

There’s nothing quite like a delicate coastal region to remind us all of the vulnerability of the planet, and there’s nothing like a tourist town to remind us all to check in with our disposable mindsets.

The Outer Banks of North Carolina (OBX) are both of those things: a coastal region and a popular tourist destination — and so much more. These 200 miles of beautiful barrier islands float between the Atlantic Ocean and a series of inlets and host a residential population of only about 55,000.

It’s a place where you know the difference between actual neighbors and “neighbors” who are “not here for a long time but a good time.” It’s a place where wind direction and daily surf reports take priority over just about everything else — especially working, wearing shoes, and washing your hair (sorry, HiBAR). It’s a place that’s, “in some ways, divorced from the rest of the country. But in other ways, perhaps more real because you’re so intertwined with nature.”

With an average elevation of three feet above sea level and a width of only 150 yards (at its thinnest point), it’s safe to say this place is not only extremely unique — but uniquely vulnerable to human impacts.  So, whatever you may call the Outer Banks...

  • The Graveyard of the Atlantic

  • Home of The Lost Colony

  • Home of the First Flight (Ohio folks, we know this is a sore spot.)

  • Stomping Grounds of John B and company (Thank you, Netflix.)

  • A Model of the 2021 Ford Bronco

  • Summer Vacation Destination

  • Home

...right now, I hope we can all think of the Outer Banks as a beautiful reminder of the vulnerability of this planet. At the end of the day, we (not locals, not vacationers, but humans) are all tourists in this place we call Earth. But it’s time we stop treating it like a place we’re just passing through.

How does the disposable mindset impact the Outer Banks?

As someone who grew up vacationing on the Outer Banks and now lives here full time, I know how much your respect can grow for this place once you start to call it home. I know that vacationers will never really understand that feeling, just like I’ll never really understand what it feels like to have generations of family history tied to these islands. 

But I think all OBX residents can agree — it’s easy to get completely overwhelmed by the impacts of unsustainable behaviors on these incredible islands once you’re here long enough to experience the effects. Severe weather, rising sea levels, eroding shorelines, dead animals washing ashore, insurmountable amounts of human waste, and more — are enough to make anyone feel like “sustainability” and “saving the planet” are far out of reach.

But if I’ve learned anything in my own sustainability journey, it’s that anything is better than nothing. Small efforts, the right mindset, and time — in conjunction with the concept of strength in numbers — is where real, lasting change starts. 

That’s why today, I want to focus on a direct, preventable issue that burdens the Outer Banks and the rest of the world: the disposable mindset.

Each year, these islands host over 2 million vacationers during the summer — and all the waste that comes along with them. To paint a picture of the impacts of this waste, the Ocean Conservancy has led the International Coastal Cleanup for over 30 years. In 2019 alone, volunteers cleaned up 83,439 pounds of trash along the 408 miles of the NC coastline. The Outer Banks beaches make up roughly half of those miles.

Now, imagine the volume of waste that gets carried to the water by the wind and tides before we can ever intercept it. Hint: the Atlantic's total plastic load is estimated at around 220.4 million tons. So the question is, why aren’t we all doing something about it? Another hint: We’re immune to our own disposable mindsets until we see the impacts in action.

But here’s the thing. This concept has a whole new meaning in tourist destinations like the Outer Banks. Most people don’t ever see their impacts in action because they’re in and out of here in the blink of an eye. (Well, not exactly. Because the Outer Banks aren’t meant to accommodate this many people, it can take two hours to drive 1.5 miles in summer traffic here. But that’s a story for another day.) Anyways, you get my point. Visitors get to drive away from their impacts.

Well, as someone who’s “stuck here on purpose,” here’s a glimpse into some of those impacts in your rearview mirror. (Sidenote: when I say “your” rearview mirror, it’s not personal. I don’t really mean you. I have no idea if you’re an OBX resident, a vacationer, or an innocent bystander who just loves HiBAR’s shampoo bars because, well, they are lovable. I’m just obsessed with the words “you” and “your” because I’m a copywriter.) Okay, back to those unseen impacts “you” leave behind:

  • I walk down my street on a rental turnover day in the summer. I see recycling bins overflowing with beverage containers and trash bursting with beach equipment (boogie boards, umbrellas, chairs, kites, shovels, and buckets) that was only used for one week.

  • I walk down the beach in November and don’t see a single human. Yet I unexpectedly pick up so much trash along the way that my hands and arms hurt from holding everything.

  • I receive an email in the winter to vote for a new trash pickup schedule that will (hopefully) be able to handle picking up the amount of trash that will come from the upcoming record volume of visitors. Because last year, it couldn't.

  • I read about a Corolla Wild Horse that just died after choking on an apple. Danny, a yearling colt, died a completely preventable death — a reminder to respect the wildlife’s space and to never leave trash behind.

As someone who has only lived here for a few years, I really feel for the locals whose ties to these islands span across generations. The people who have aerial photos of their homes with no other homes in sight. The people whose grandparents bought land for cents per acre when most of the roads here didn’t even exist. The people who have seen all of the impacts of human waste and development unravel on this once-untouched safe haven.

How can you help?

One of the greatest things you can do for the Outer Banks (and the planet) is...

Ditch the disposable mindset.

Be mindful of the fact that the Outer Banks themselves have no idea how beautiful they are or why humans find them so appealing. Here are a few suggestions to help you ditch the disposable mindset when visiting the Outer Banks and inspire change in the rest of your life, too:

These are only a few examples. But once you begin rethinking your habits, mindful, sustainable choices will become second nature. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, these beaches see millions of visitors and tens of thousands of pounds of trash every year. Every single effort, no matter the size, is greatly needed and appreciated.

Protect what you love.

As we speak, the Outer Banks are experiencing another record-breaking flood of vacationers. Whether you’re planning to visit these delicate islands, or their unique and beautiful vulnerability strikes a chord with you, just remember…

The Outer Banks, in tandem with the planet, deserve to be treated as more than just objects in the rearview.

About the Author
Jordan Horwat is a freelance sustainability copywriter. As someone who grew up visiting the Outer Banks every year since birth and is now a full-time resident, she’s what locals call “a transplant.” She respects that. Nonetheless, Jordan loves learning and writing about all things sustainability + OBX and wants nothing more than for everyone to respect and protect this place as much as they love it.
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About the Photographer
Gayle T. Tiller has been capturing the rare beauty of the Outer Banks for 30 years. Her expertise ranges from family beach portraits to food photography, but as you can see, she can photograph anything. As a long-time, free-spirited beach bum (in the best sense of the term), Gayle is uniquely connected to these islands, and that shows through her lens.
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