Tuesday, December 14, 2010
Photos and Text by Andrew Burdick
It’s 4:30AM, in the dark and chilly pre-dawn mist. A giant 18 wheel industrial dump truck lumbers its way through the streets of downtown Portland, its cargo covered by a taught black tarp stretched and tied over the enormous trailer’s steel girth. Near the middle of the Burnside Bridge, the behemoth slows and figures into an awkward k-turn like maneuver, so that the trailer sits at a slight diagonal consuming all four lanes. Inching backwards, the rig comes to a stop with the cargo bay doors in its rear hovering just inches from the bridge’s cement south side guardrail.
With a wicked crack, piercing the night’s eerie calm, the trailer’s cargo doors fly open. The rig’s hydraulic system engages, lifting the huge container to a steep angle. In a few short and terrifying moments, 2.6 million toxic cigarette butts die swiftly into the Willamette River far below.
Well, that’s not entirely true. The 2.6 million cigarette butts weren’t delivered to the Willamette by a truck. And they weren’t dumped into the river at one place, all at the same time. The vessel that carried the seemingly insignificant butts to the river was rainwater and runoff, through sewer outfalls and smaller streams, over the course of a year. And the culprit … well, look no further than yourself (if you smoke and toss your butts onto the ground as litter, of course).
In a city that receives nearly 50 inches of rain per year, it is estimated that roughly 20% of the more than 1 billion cigarettes littered every year end up in the waterways of the Willamette Valley watershed.
For a self-proclaimed ‘green-city,’ Portland has a huge cigarette litter problem. And, it appears that after the statewide indoor smoking ban went into effect in January 2009, cigarette litter has increased dramatically.
The number of cities, states, and foreign countries that have enforced similar bans is extensive. Though most share an unfortunate consequence of the well-intentioned legislation: an increase in cigarette litter. It appears fairly logical: smokers are no longer allowed to smoke inside their favorite pubs, restaurants, or cafes and so they end up outside on the sidewalks. Receptacles for cigarette butts are few and far between and who wants to stuff a burning, smelly, filthy cigarette butt back into their pocket? So, more butts are tossed onto our streets, lawns, sidewalks and gardens.
A thorough study by Environmental Campaigns (ENCAMS) in Great Britain in 2007 found that cigarette litter increased by as much as 70% across England after their country wide indoor ban went into effect in July 2007.
On a recent Saturday morning, I visited Slabtown – a late night bar and music venue in NW Portland. Before the indoor smoking ban, Slabtown was a smoker’s haven. Some nights the smoke was so thick one couldn’t see to the other side of the room. Now, between drinks, smokers funnel out onto the sidewalk in front of the building. And, despite a small outdoor ashtray on the sidewalk, most of their butts end up in the street.
In 30 minutes, I picked up more than 700 littered cigarette butts from the sidewalk and street around the building. Many butts had already been washed into the storm water drain near the corner of 16th and Marshall. Slabtown is not the only hotspot for cigarette litter – streets that border pubs and bars all over Portland show a visible increase in littered butts.
So what’s all the fuss about, you might be wondering. Yeah they’re unsightly. Yeah they stink. But cigarette butts are biodegradable, right? Wrong. Cigarette filters are made of a cellulose acetate (plastic like) fiber that can take years (and sometimes decades) to breakdown. Yet, within moments of coming in contact with water the butts will begin to leach toxic chemicals, including known carcinogens, into the surrounding environment.
The burning of a cigarette produces more than 4,000 different chemicals, of which 60 are known carcinogens and many more are considered probable to be cancer causing. The ingredients for this chemical smoke-tail include lead, arsenic, formaldehyde, benzene, and DDT. The list goes on, and on, and on. And, of course, there’s nicotine. But we all already knew that. What you might not know is that nicotine is considered a lethal poison. It’s actually used as a potent pesticide and 40-60mg will kill a full-grown adult human. By comparison, the average cigarette contains 8-15mg of nicotine and roughly 1mg of nicotine per cigarette smoked is actually absorbed into the body.
The purpose of the filter is to trap some of these chemicals so that they all don’t enter the smoker’s lungs and become absorbed into the bloodstream. But how effective is a filter at trapping harmful chemicals?
According to a 2000 study by Kathleen Register, the executive director of Clean Virginia Waterways, 1 cigarette butt per 8 gallons of water was “acutely toxic” and lethal to the water flea, Daphnia magna. Subsequent studies by Micevska, Warne (et. al.) in Australia and Japan have confirmed that toxic chemicals, including arsenic and polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs – highly carcinogenic), leach into their environments in significant quantities from littered cigarette butts and can have negative effects on biological life.
Do littered cigarette butts pose a health threat to people? Particular molecules, such as PAHs, are soluble in fat and bio-accumulate as they make their way up the food chain. In this way, the concentration of PAHs in animals at the top of the food chain (humans who eat fish from the river, for example) might be tens of thousands of times greater than the concentration of PAHs in the water.
To date, there is a clear lack of in-depth studies analyzing the potential for direct negative effects on human health from cigarette butt litter. Indeed, given the reductive nature of modern science and the fact that cigarette litter is a non-point source of pollution, such a direct cause-and-effect correlation may be unlikely to be made. Though, it should be clear to us all that any amount of unnatural and toxic chemicals being added to our waterways is unacceptable. Such pollution, in any significant quantity can only have negative consequences for people, water, and the ecosystems that support us all.
Nonetheless, cigarette butts are the most littered item (numerically) on the planet. Every year, we litter nearly 4.5 trillion cigarette butts into our environments – that’s roughly 80% of world production. To get an idea of how big this number is – if we took all of the cigarette butts littered on earth from one year and placed them end to end, we’d have a string of butts 99 million miles along: enough to make 419 round trip journeys from earth to the moon or circumnavigate the equator 3,900 times. The scale is almost incomprehensible – and that’s just one year’s worth of littered butts.
They line our streets and beaches, float in our rivers and lakes, and birds, fish, and other wildlife often mistake them for food. The Ocean Conservancy reports that many birds and fish have been found dead, their stomachs filled with cellulose acetate and other plastic debris. The cause of death: starvation. The plastic is not digestible and it makes food intake and digestion impossible.
The problem is large, though solutions are available. Ultimately, every cigarette butt littered is done so from a human hand. Smokers can be informed of the realities of cigarette but litter. In N. Ireland, Tidy Northern Ireland – a non-profit focusing on litter prevention – launched a combined advertising, PR and media campaign “targeted directly at smokers” who litter their cigarette butts. And, it worked. Some target areas saw more than a 70% reduction in cigarette litter. The messaging encouraged smokers to take “greater responsibility with their smoking litter.” In addition, the group helped provide more than 20,000 pocket ashtrays to smokers in seriously affected areas and worked to make cigarette disposal bins more affordable for local businesses.
Here in Oregon, the state legislature has made it a $90 fine for littering cigarette butts; though, skeptics wonder how that law will be meaningfully enforced. With more people smoking on the sidewalks and streets, one practical solution would be to make cigarette disposal receptacles more frequent. An added tax to cigarette manufacturers of a few cents per pack would easily pay for such an initiative.
In addition, cigarette butts could be given a monetary value similar to bottles and cans. Smokers would pay an additional “deposit” for every pack and when cigarette butts are returned – those butts could be credited towards the next purchase or redeemable for some small amount (i.e. $0.01 per butt). Many stores and tobacco shops already offer “pocket-ashtrays” – that allow smokers to hold on to their butts when no trash receptacle is readily available.
As my experience at Slabtown shows, having receptacles doesn’t necessarily mean smokers will use them. The problem, it turns out, is largely psychological. “People who would never even consider throwing their coffee cup or napkin on the ground don’t think twice about putting their cigarettes on the ground,” says Congresswoman Carolyn Tomei, D-Milwaukie.
Policy action and marketing from public and private institutions that is aimed at preventing cigarette litter is both necessary and required. However, we cannot apathetically rely on public policy makers or expect that multinational corporations will start to care about anything other than their own profit margins. Ultimately it is the action of individuals that have the greatest potential for preventing cigarette litter. For those of us who understand why cigarette litter is wrong and destructive, we must no longer tolerate the behavior of those that do not understand or do not care. Social pressure has an incredible influence on behavior. When out and about around town – and you see someone littering a cigarette butt, let them know it is unacceptable.
Some advocates of ending cigarette litter support the ‘cradle-to-grave’ ideology, which suggests that tobacco companies – such as R.J. Reynolds and the Altria Group (formerly Phillip Morris) – should be responsible and accountable for all of the cigarette litter their products produce. Presently, tobacco companies are not willing to help educate their customers about the negative effects of cigarette litter due to fears that such an inconvenience for the customer (no longer being able to litter butts!) will lead to a decline in cigarette sales. Misinformation from tobacco companies is a huge contributor to the widely held (and false) public perception that cigarette butts are biodegradable. Until such companies are forced to be accountable and responsible for the effects of the products they sell, they will happily continue to externalize those costs onto other people, our society, and our environments, waterways, and wildlife.
Recently, I was on my bicycle waiting behind a long row of cars on NW 19th near Burnside. It was a gloriously sunny afternoon. The driver in the dark blue Subaru in front of me casually flicked his cigarette butt onto the street; I watched as the smoldering butt rolled a few inches before stopping. I hopped off my bike and stepped on the butt to put it out. Then, I picked it up and approached his window. “Excuse me,” I offered, “but, it seems you’ve dropped some litter. If you like I could throw it away for you.”
The startled look on his face was of shock and bewilderment. His mouth fell open and is brow scrunched. I waited for an awkward moment, expecting an angry and defensive response. “Oh, uhh …” he stuttered – pausing for a long moment, processing my gesture. “No, I’ll take it” he said, extending his open hand as if to acknowledge responsibility. One less cigarette littered. Sure, not a huge deal. But, I have to believe he’ll think twice before doing it again.
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