What would you guess is the most collected litter at Pemaquid Watershed Association’s annual cleanup around Pemaquid Point? Beverage cans and bottles? Food wrappers? Plastic bags? Wrong. Twice as many cigarette butts are picked up than all those other types of litter combined. According to Keep America Beautiful’s (KAB) Cigarette Litter Prevention Program, the nationwide estimate is that 25-33% of litter by item consists of cigarette filters. Similarly, the Ocean Conservancy reports that 28% of litter that washes up onto beaches worldwide is filters.
“But they are so small and will eventually go away”, you might think. Unfortunately, about 95% of filters are made of cellulose acetate, a form of plastic that takes decades to degrade. Besides being, dare I say, a “butt ugly” eyesore, discarded cigarette filters can travel through storm drains and water systems, polluting the water and endangering the welfare of wildlife that mistake them for food. Thomas Novotny, professor of global health at San Diego State, tells us in a NY Times article, Tiny Trash Piles Up, that filters are full of poisonous substances, including of course nicotine, which is a pesticide. He cites experiments that have shown that one cigarette filter has enough poisons to kill half the minnows in a liter of water in 96 hours.
Studies indicate that approximately 80% of smokers report that they would properly dispose of cigarette litter if there were a receptacle close by. KAB research done in 2010 found that 41.8% of smokers who work report that the smoking areas do not have waste receptacles. This research also states that for each additional ash receptacle, either a stand-alone or integrated into a trash can, the littering rate for cigarette filters decreases by 9%. Portland has led the charge in Maine by partnering with the Natural Resources Council of Maine to install nearly seventy “Sidewalk Buttlers” across the city. The collected filters are shipped free of charge to Terracycle and turned into plastic pellets as raw material for benches, pallets, and railroad ties.
Besides making sure there are handy waste receptacles, another realm of solutions involves changes in the composition of the filter itself. The website Alternet reports that the company Greenbutts is manufacturing filters that are completely biodegradable. They are made of cotton, hemp, and flax, and can even sprout into grass or flowers when covered with a thin layer of soil. There even are legislative attempts in Maryland and California to outlaw the sale of non-biodegradable filters.
Please help us to keep the Pemaquid Peninsula beautiful and healthy by taking some simple steps to reduce cigarette filter litter. Please help educate your friends about the dangers to water quality and wildlife of discarding cigarette filters on the ground. Encourage workplaces that permit smoking to install receptacles for filters in the designated smoking areas. Finally, consider carrying a pocket ashtray, which are available very inexpensively on the internet on several sites including www.amazon.com. Napa stores and The Cigarette Shopper in Thomaston carry slightly larger receptacles that are useful in cars. We all, smokers and non-smokers alike, can work together to make a difference!
By Joanna Holland, Member of the Keep Pemaquid Peninsula Beautiful Steering Committee