Public art initiative aims to raise awareness of pollution in Greenville

Keep Greenville County Beautiful has commissioned a series of sculptures to help raise awareness of how litter is impacting natural resources and wildlife throughout the area and to highlight the steps we can all take to improve the current situation. The first sculpture in the series is located along the Swamp Rabbit Trail. Photo provided.

City and county leaders alike often reflect on Greenville’s growth over the past few years as having had a positive impact on the economy and quality of life. But the loss of green space to retail shops, restaurants, and other developments has also resulted in a number of environmental concerns, including increased levels of stormwater runoff.

When rainwater can’t soak into the ground, it runs along streets and parking lots, picking up pollutants and trash and carrying them into local waterways. 

In response, a number of nonprofit organizations are working throughout the area to promote smart growth and prevent litter from damaging our natural resources. But one of those groups  Keep Greenville County Beautiful — is using an unlikely tool to do so: public art.

The nonprofit, which is an affiliate of Keep America Beautiful, the nation’s largest community-improvement organization, has commissioned a series of sculptures to raise awareness of litter’s impact on natural resources and wildlife throughout Greenville County and to highlight the steps we can all take to improve the current situation.

“Public art catches people’s attention. It is a great place-making tool, and is also one that can be used to educate,” said Tina Belge, executive director of Keep Greenville County Beautiful. “Through our sculptures we are telling a story about the natural animal inhabitants of our area and the importance of protecting their environment. Additionally, public art serves as a beautification tool, which deters negative behaviors such as littering and dumping.”

Keep Greenville County Beautiful installed its first sculpture, which depicts a rabbit, along the Swamp Rabbit Trail in 2015, according to Belge. The organization’s second sculpture, a 3-foot beaver, was recently unveiled at the 2018 Get Out! Greenville event. It is now located at Lake Conestee Nature Park.

Each sculpture is made out of a steel mesh shell and stuffed with plastic cups, soda cans, and other pieces of discarded litter, according to Belge.

The sculptures were created by Jim Swaim, an environmentally minded artist out of Myrtle Beach, and were paid for by grants from Palmetto Pride, a nonprofit created by the South Carolina Legislature “to coordinate and implement statewide and local programs for litter control.”

Swaim, a former set designer and production manager for the entertainment industry, began creating environmental sculptures about five years ago after participating in a river-sweep event on the coast, when he noticed large amounts of litter floating throughout the South Carolina Intracoastal Waterway. He’s since created over 50 sculptures for Keep America Beautiful and its local affiliates across the country.

“There are so many horrible stories out there about what plastics are doing to our oceans and waterways,” Swaim said. “I had to take action.”

Litter, which consists of trash and household toxic substances that are improperly disposed of on land or in water, isn’t just unsightly: It harms physical habitats, transports chemical pollutants, threatens aquatic life, and interferes with human uses of river, marine, and coastal environments, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. An estimated 9 billion tons of litter is dumped into the world’s oceans every year, the agency said.

Belge said Keep Greenville County Beautiful would continue to partner with Swaim in the coming years to install additional sculptures. The nonprofit also plans to apply for additional grant funding in the coming months to support several art projects that will feature anti-litter messaging and appear in various locations across the county.

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