Cigarette butts: the forgotten environmental threat

First a disclaimer! I am a recovering addict. Twenty-six years ago, I had my last cigarette – the final coffin nail of a 40 a day habit that up until then had seemed to be a cool – even manly – thing to do.

But times were changing. I’d just married a lovely woman who didn’t smoke and was too polite to ask me to quit, though the crinkling nose every time I lit up was a clear sign of her position on the subject. Then at work a new rule emerged: no smoking was allowed in the office if anyone objected. It was the first step in moving the addicted onto the footpath outside the building.

At first, I felt resentment – arguing that smokers had rights as well. But after I went cold turkey I developed the zealotry of an abstainer and quickly moved to support every product tax applied by government and every restriction established in the workplace.

However, as I travel through the world these days and see huddled groups puffing on the steps and discarding butts into flowerbeds I wonder whether solving one problem hasn’t created another.

In the days of smoke filled offices those butts formed a leaning tower that rose from the ashtray on a desk. They would eventually be bagged and sent via rubbish collection to landfill. Not ideal, but at least some element of control was applied to disposal. Today – trillions of butts worldwide are discarded into the landscape, most ending up in the waterways. Surely that poses a threat to the environment?

A problem that won’t go away

When I was a boy, littering seemed to be silently tolerated. It was common to see cans or balled up paper bags flying from the windows of passing cars. But over time as the environmental and aesthetic effects of this rubbish grew, that tolerance turned to activism. Laws were finally policed and as community disdain became peer group pressure, behaviour began to change. More and more communities had clean-up days collecting the rubbish (particularly plastic bags) around their neighbourhoods while public bin infrastructure (both general waste and recycling) was expanded. Yet with all this increased awareness and activity, cigarette butts continue to be one of the largest sources of litter.

Recently, students at Yale University ran a lunchtime pick up event as part of a push for a tobacco-free campus. In an hour they collected over 8,000 butts, most discarded around bus stops (close to day-care centres) or outside buildings. Other clean-ups have produced similar results, seemly reinforcing the fact that many smokers have no problem with tossing their cigarette butts away, apparently oblivious to the fines that could be levied (but rarely are) and the environmental impacts. I suspect if challenged they would counter with: what am I supposed to do with it? Put it in my pocket?

I wonder how many of them realise that the butt they’ve discarded is not biodegradable?  That it will eventually leach heavy metals like cadmium, arsenic, copper formaldehyde and dozens more into the environment and after one good rainstorm, be washed into the rivers and the sea becoming toxic fodder to be consumed by marine life? Having felt the desperate need for a nicotine fix, I am also compelled to ask: Would it matter if they did know?

Perhaps to many it would. I am a believer that people generally want to do the right thing if they know what it is and it is convenient. But the restrictions on smoking now mean that the addicts are compelled to light up when they can. I often see them puffing away as they walk between meetings or wait for a bus. And once the cigarette is finished it is almost always crushed into the footpath or thrown into a nearby flowerbed, where it becomes the first step in the pollution process.

There is no argument that smoking is more than a health problem. It is also a serious environmental threat. So, is there anything we can do about it?

Well, we could try banning cigarettes, but history does not support prohibition being a successful strategy. We could increase penalties, but this is pointless unless they are policed and how do you do that when there are potentially millions of offenders? How about further restricting areas where you can smoke, by creating smoke free streets or neighbourhoods? Some areas have already tried this (in fact my university recently designated itself a smoke free campus). The risks here are that you’ll either shift the problem to another area or simply produce surreptitious behaviour on a par with school kids smoking behind the gym.

Or maybe we could try something outside the box – like the suggestion from one mayor that a deposit be paid on cigarette packets which would be claimed when it was returned to the shop with the butts inside. However, as appealing as that idea is on the surface the opportunities for abuse and sheer logistics of managing it suggest it is unlikely to be implemented any time soon.

Half-hearted solutions

Which really leaves just education and improving bin infrastructure – pedestrian strategies already in place but, I would argue, ones not being pursued with much conviction.

Many cities have street ashtrays but they are usually ugly things and consequently located ‘out of plain sight’. A case in point, I was recently in Vancouver, one of the world’s greenest cities – and while there were small butt bins fixed to light posts, there appeared to be little sense to their locations and they were so discrete as to be almost unnoticeable. There was also seating along the streets to accommodate the weary shopper but no ashtrays nearby. Not surprisingly the footpaths were pock marked with crushed fag ends.

An infrastructure programme based on the pattern of disposal would see appropriately designed ashtrays located where smokers are mostly likely to gather and with those ashtrays as obvious as waste and recycling bins. A complementary strategy would be to ‘go small’ by legislating for tobacco companies to create packets that include a disposal compartment, thus giving smokers an option to ‘pocket the butt’ until it can be disposed of responsibly.

On education, there is already a significant public health programme on the dangers of smoking. Advertisements in the media or warnings on cigarette packets are part of an information initiative that has seen the number of smokers significantly reduced where it has been applied. Why not piggyback on success and incorporate environmental warnings into this media? Smoking not only kills you, it kills the planet!

Some public health advocates have decried this idea – worried it would dilute their message and arguing that the best way to remove the environmental threat is to stop people smoking. A valid point that ignores the fact that no matter how successful they are there will always be smokers and at the very least, we want these diehards to dispose of their butts responsibly. I happen to think people are capable of understanding two issues simultaneously, so I see little risk in combining messages and who knows, maybe adding an environmental imperative to the personal one may provide an increased impetus to quit.

These strategies will take time, but combined with the nagging pressure of community expectations, eventually they will change behaviour and see the (hopefully) few smokers left in our midst reflexively binning the butt.

Bart Meehan

Bart Meehan

Visiting fellow and research associate, Fenner School of Environment and Society, The Australian National University

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