Litter Leader: Cigarette Butts

The Ocean Conservancy’s recent inventory of coastal litter highlights the high number of plastic discards found along our shorelines.  The leading item collected in 2011 on Coastal Cleanup Day–but it could be any day– was cigarette butts, which are made of cellulose acetate.

Ocean Conservancy's Coastal Cleanup - Top Ten Items Found

Via Ocean Conservancy

Smokers often flick their butts down wherever they are. We’d like to believe that part of the explanation for this is that they don’t really know much about that butt. Possibly they think it’s biodegradable, like tobacco. Possibly they think a butt is so small, it just doesn’t matter.  But we need to recognize that collectively cigarette butts are a problem, because they are littered everywhere. Look around you: whether along the sidewalk, in the street or subway, at the beach or  park; you’ll be able to confirm the quantity of butts anywhere and everywhere.

Cellulose Acetate is the type of plastic used in cigarette filters.  Like other plastics, cigarette filters are not biodegradable.  And butts are quite toxic, containing nicotine, arsenic, benzene and cadmium filtered from the processed tobacco.  These substances are lethal to other living things like fish. According to Dr. Thomas Novotny, a global health expert quoted in the NY Times article, Cigarette Butts–Tiny Trash That Piles Up:

…one butt has enough poisons to kill half the minnows in a liter of water–a standard laboratory test for toxins– in 96 hours.

Although filters cut down on the amount of poisons reaching the lungs of smokers, it is mostly an illusion that they protect the smoker. In fact, it’s believed that the plastic fibers in the filter are sucked into the lungs, contributing to lung cancers.

Over the last decade, smoking in public spaces has been steadily curtailed to reduce exposure of non-smokers to secondhand smoke.  And due to the quantity of cigarette litter found outdoors, there are many advocates for further restrictions, such as outlawing smoking on beaches.  A great example of local advocacy that we’ve been following is It Starts With Me, a blog promoting a smoke-free Wrightsville Beach, in North Carolina.  So far, in 132 days of twenty-minute outings to pick up trash at various locations on the beach, the author and her fellows have collected more than 44,036 cigarette butts, bringing constant attention to the problem and putting pressure on local officials to fix it.

Cigarette Butts and other Beach Litter

20 minutes on March 9, 2012 at Access 17, Cigarette Butts: 458. Via It Starts with Me

What’s the answer to the cigarette litter problem?  Littering signs and fines are an important tool, but they are only truly effective where they can be rigorously enforced.

Keep America Beautiful, an old-timer in this fight, recommends pocket ashtrays, more cigarette butt receptacles at transition points like entrances, and perpetual community cleanups, because “litter on the ground begets more litter.”

An excellent article, Cigarette Butts and The Case for an Environmental Policy on Hazardous Cigarette Waste, by Dr. Novotny and others,  examines a raft of novel ideas for dealing with the issue, from offering a system of deposits and refunds for cigarette butts to mandating filter-less cigarettes.

Public awareness campaigns might persuade careless smokers to be more responsible about disposing of their butts, and a broad education effort is likely to create a general attitude that lessens the tolerance for others’ butt-littering habits.  Societal opprobrium would seem to be one of the most effective ways to discourage casual filter-flicking.

Outright bans have been very effective. It Starts With Me has documented the striking difference between the vast numbers of cigarette butts collected at Wrightsville Beach, vs. the few collected along the beach in Santa Monica, which is smoke-free.

Which of these ideas do you like and why? Feel free to leave a thought.

UPDATE: The Wrightsville Beach smoking ban initiated by community groups including It Starts With Me achieved big success at the polls in November 2012 with 65% of voters supporting a smoke-free beach.


One Comment

  1. Outdoor smoking and careless flicking of butts also raises the risk of fires. In what looks like will be another dry and scorching summer, we need to raise more awareness about this casual but insidious behavior. This article, compiled by Clean Virginia Waterways at Longwood University in VA states that there are 900 deaths each year, and 2500 injuries, just from fires started by cigarettes: