Cliff moved to Wilmington to invest. He was in his late 20s and already had five rental houses in Asheville. The coastal market was humming. House prices continued to spike. Mortgages were so easy to get that in many cases a person never even had to prove how much money they made. So, things were going pretty well for Cliff; actually, things were going extremely well until the market collapsed. He lost almost everything, except for a big investment property out in the sticks, with way more rooms than a single man could ever fill.
Having experienced how easily money came and went, Cliff realized he’d rather do something meaningful. His move from the more environmentall conscious community of Asheville to the Porter’s Neck area of Wilmington came with culture shock. How could such a beautiful community with so many smart people, talented musicians, great food, and colleges be so behind when it came to something as basic as recycling?
He knew that something had to be done after friends invited him to join them on their boat to Masonboro for the 4th of July. He had never been to the island before and didn’t know what to expect. When he saw the waist-high piles of trash left behind by others at the end of the day, he began walking the beach to pick it up, but there was too much to get it all. The waste was overwhelming. People just got back on their boats and left mountains of waste behind.
Cliff was so frustrated he seriously considered moving. For a week or so after July 4th, he was depressed. He was disappointed in his new community. How could people leave behind so much trash on an isolated nature reserve where endangered birds and turtles made their nests? After some thought, he decided that rather than leave or do nothing, he would stay and try to do something that would make a difference.
A few months later, scraping together as much capital as he could, he helped launch a recycling company to service the areas outside the city limits where he lived. Over the past six years, his company, Green Coast, has deterred 100 tons a month from the landfill and provided free recycling for schools and non-profits while barely making enough to stay afloat When the Azalea Festival brought the Avett Bros. to town to perform, and the organizers failed to provide recycling containers for the thousands of beer cans consumed, Cliff called them out on it. He’s gone on to raise money and awareness for environmental causes, including Stop Titan, and helped catalyze those in our community who care about earthy issues. But it hasn’t been easy when other companies, who had spent decades not caring about recycling, are now taking business away from him. It’s been frustrating to fight for clean air and water when local leaders invite and incentivize pollution. It’s discouraging to help with a river or beach clean-up only to see that same setting strewn with litter a few short weeks later.
The day Cliff stood on Masonboro Island and watched young people toss beer bottles all over paradise seemed so insane that it nearly overwhelmed him. Today, he’s not sure what made him think that a six-year fight for environmental awareness would be more encouraging. But there have been bright moments, such as riding in his recycling truck around Christmas when customers put out thank-you gifts. He felt that people appreciate his efforts to help change the environmental climate. If he didn’t think they’d made a difference, Cliff—who moonlights as an award-winning stand-up comic—says he would’ve taken to the road as a full-time comedian. In fact, if someone wants to take over Green Coast for him, he’s interested in talking.
While he doesn’t feel as if his efforts have made as big of an impact as he would have liked, he thinks Wilmington is better than it was six years ago. When the NC Coastal Federation awarded Cliff their highest honor, a Pelican award, in 2013, it caught him off guard. It just never occurred to him that anyone would acknowledge his work in such an official way. The Christmas cookies from customers had been the apex until that moment. In his acceptance speech, he said that his first thought after being notified of winning the award was that he could have done more.
“We could all do more,” he concluded, “but whatever anyone is doing, no matter how small, it matters a great deal. To all the people fighting for the environment of this beautiful little town, please don’t stop. Even when it feels like it doesn’t matter, it does. And you are appreciated.”
Joel Finsel is the author of “Cocktails and Conversations from the Astral Plane,” and writes creative short stories, essays and musings every other week in encore throughout 2014.