Discarded Cigarette Butts: Common and Toxic
Butts degrade slowly; wildlife mistake them for food.
Glance down at the sidewalk outside a building entrance or at the pavement at an intersection, and chances are you’ll see cigarette butts scattered about. Several trillion butts are littered each year. They are the most common littered item, comprising 38 percent of all U.S. roadway litter, says Keep America Beautiful. They are the most common beach trash.
Locally, many butts end up in the Potomac River, carried there when stormwater sends them into the river’s tributaries, local streams like Hunting Creek and Paul Spring Branch. Some end up in Dyke Marsh and other area wetlands.
Why is this a problem?
Besides being unsightly to most people, cigarette butts are toxic to fish and other organisms. Plastic from cigarette butts has been found in stomachs of fish, birds, whales and other marine animals because the animals mistake them for food.
Almost 95 percent of a cigarette filter is cellulose acetate, a plastic that degrades slowly. Fibers are thinner than thread, packed tightly and look like cotton. Cigarette butts contain multiple toxins that can leach out and become a biohazard to organisms. Kathleen M. Register, a Longwood University expert, has documented the harm of the butts’ toxins on aquatic organisms.
Other problems: Butts thrown from vehicles can cause fires. Cigarette butts are difficult and costly to pick up. Pennsylvania State University spent $150,000 in labor costs over two weeks to remove all butts from the campus. One survey of bikers in England found that coping with butts flung out car windows was their number two annoyance.
Some attribute the growth in improperly discarded butts to bans on indoor smoking. “Circumstantial evidence indicates that more cigarette butts are accumulating outside of buildings due to the popularity of indoor smoking bans,” wrote Register.
No data on the number of littered butts locally exists, but cigarette butts top the list of trash items found during Clean Virginia Waterway cleanups. In 2009, one person picked up 952 butts on a 100-foot stretch of a left turn lane on a Fairfax County highway, according to the 2009 and 2011 reports of Fairfax County’s Environmental Quality Advisory Council (EQAC). EQAC members have discussed stricter enforcement of anti-littering laws with the Fairfax County Police Department.
Mount Vernon Supervisor Gerry Hyland commented, "I have always wondered about folks who dump car ash trays onto a parking lot, throw cigarette butts out the car window or cigar butts into the Chesapeake Bay on a fishing trip. Would they dump this detritus into their bath tub before stepping in? How about dumping this stuff on your driveway or patio? The answer is obvious, but we need to convince folks that it is not a cool thing to do ‘litter-ally’ because it all ends up in the Bay.”
The county’s Clean Fairfax Council is seeking a grant to conduct an anti-littering campaign and to purchase large ashtrays for public events. They also propose a pilot study in which they would place signs in 20 public areas such as a library or recreation center throughout the county where cigarette litter is most prevalent. The signs will ask smokers to dispose of cigarette butts in proper receptacles.
Virginia Del. Joe Morrissey (D-Richmond) will again introduce a bill in the 2012 General Assembly to create a fine of $100 per butt for littering, aimed at people who empty car ash trays outdoors. “It is disgraceful that somebody has the temerity to discard a single cigarette butt or an entire ashtray of butts at an intersection just so they can keep their car clean, but at the same time completely disregard the environment.” A similar bill failed in 2011.
In Fairfax County, people can anonymously report someone littering from a vehicle on the Clean Fairfax Web site or call 703-324-3106. The Council has an arrangement under which the police will send a letter to the owner of the vehicle after receiving the information. The letter states that the owner of the vehicle was observed littering and that he or she should avoid this to prevent future enforcement actions.