Updated: Apr 23, 2019
Butts on by the curb, right by my house :(
Your cigarette butts are a huge problem.
You. Yes you. Casual smoker when drinking, “social smoker,” 2 packs a day Camel Menthol Crush lover, chain-smoking Marlboro red addict, and you too, American Spirit consumer. I see you.
Stop throwing your trash on the ground.
You’re worse than the jerks who throw paper take-out bags out their car windows. Why!?! What? You might ask. Who, me? Thou doth protest too much.
Your cigarette butts are trash. That little filter is not made of cotton and is not so easy to scoop up out of the street as a big paper bag. I’ve seen estimates that between 2-4 trillion cigarette butts get tossed on the ground every year. Water quality organizations like mine do cleanups and count your nastyass cigarette butts for the purpose of coming up with these estimates. “In annual ocean cleanups in 2016, cigarette butts remained the top collected item of litter in California, in the United States, and internationally.” https://globalnews.ca/news/4418956/cigarette-butts-ocean-pollution-ban/. All too often, once tossed on the ground cigarette butts wash down the street, down the stormdrain, and into our waterways.
Your litter gets picked up by rain or snowmelt travelling over the pavement and other urban surfaces – aka, stormwater – and gets carried away. Stormwater carries litter down the street and right down the storm drain. And where does that storm drain drain to, exactly? Well, that depends on the city you live in, but generally speaking it could drain to a pipe that dumps into a stream or river. If you live in Washington State there’s a potential for your butt to end up in Puget Sound.
Check the stormdrain on your street – is there a little “Puget Sound Starts Here” logo or medallion on it?
Photo credit: Department of Ecology
If yes, this means your storm sewer drains to waters that drain to the Sound, without treatment. Your butts will not be filtered out.
The “Puget Sound Starts Here” campaign was a project to help educate residents, to train us not to throw trash on the ground for this very reason. If you live in another part of Washington or another state, it’s likely that your local government could operate a similar public education campaign like “Puget Sound Starts Here” to inform the public when your stormwater doesn’t get filtered or treated.
And oh. Unlike paper refuse or organic material, your cigarette butts contain little plastic filters that will take years to break down, releasing toxic (read, “poisonous”) chemicals into our waters.
Plastic? Yes, indeed. Those filters are plastic. Poisonous? Yep. Known and scientifically supported. I’ve read that there are over 4,000 chemicals in cigarettes, with about 50 of those being carcinogenic. These numbers could be conservative. Cigarette butts are also toxic to fish: https://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/content/20/Suppl_1/i25.
FYI, carcinogenic means “having the potential to cause cancer.” And by “potential” we mean, “we’re pretty sure it causes cancer.” That’s why your cigarette butts are a huge problem – not just for the people smoking them, but for our fish, and potentially also for downstream users of the water and consumers of fish.
It’s outrageous that so many of these nasty little cancer bombs end up in our waters. Particularly because fish and other critters eat them. Plastic pollution is a major problem contributing to sickness and deaths of fish, birds, and other wildlife – they can mistake pieces of plastic for food, causing critters to plug up their systems with undigestible materials and in some cases, starve to death. Check out this article that talks about how cigarette butts might be a bigger problem than plastic bags or straws when it comes to marine debris: http://fortune.com/2018/08/27/ocean-contamination-plastic-straws-cigarette-butts/. One proposed solution is to ban cigarette filters. And why not? We’re banning straws and plastic bags already here on the West coast!
The verdict? Your butts are a huge problem, not just for the smokers, but for all of us. Be responsible: pack them up, throw them away, and don’t let them wash down the drain.
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