News / Chicago Tribune: Cigarettes: 1.7 billion pounds of trash

Cigarettes: 1.7 billion pounds of trash
The city and environmentalists hope a new law banning beach smoking will make a local dent in the nation’s most pervasive litter problem
By Louis R. Carlozo


6:28 PM CDT, June 17, 2008

Wearing work gloves, Stephanie Smith stood at North Avenue Beach, ready to take a quick stroll down to the water and back.

It had been a few weeks since the city’s beaches opened and a new smoking ban had taken effect. So Smith, of the environmental organization Alliance of the Great Lakes, wondered: How many cigarette butts would she find?

Stuffing the butts into an Old Navy plastic bag—“Reuse and recycle, right?”—Smith paced in semihunch like a clue-hungry detective, her eyes narrowing into sharp focus as she plucked scraps from the damp sand. “It’s hard to tell how long they’ve been here and that’s part of the mystery,” she said. “A lot of these are probably leftovers from a few days ago. Or even last season. Who knows?”

One thing is for certain: Smith never waited longer than a quick five-count before finding another butt, or a fistful. Filters were scattered everywhere, from water’s edge to inches from new “NO SMOKING” signs adorning the north face of lifeguard stands. At the beach house—where similar signs were curiously, conspicuously absent—Smith dumped the contents onto a table. Though damp and in many cases shriveled with age, the butts reeked like an ashtray inhaled at close range. Smith recoiled in disgust.

In all, she collected 137 butts in a few minutes, enough to make her shake her head:

“Incredible—not in a good way.”

Largely spurred by environmentalists such as Smith who’ve spent years ridding the sands of countless cigarette butts, the city will issue $500 fines this summer to anyone caught puffing or tossing a cigarette scrap within 15 feet of a beach. It’s not so much about filling Chicago’s coffers, or squelching secondhand smoke, as to address a larger problem affecting the Chicago area—as well as waterways and coastal regions worldwide.

Experts say cigarette butts rank at the very top of litter problems—not just for their ubiquity, but for their toxicity and non-biodegradable nature.

The things stick around in sewers and soil for years, even decades. Sanitation workers can’t clean them up fast enough, and volunteer cleanup crews can only pick up so many, every so often.

“It’s about cleanliness,” said Chicago Park District superintendent Tim Mitchell. “People have been using North Avenue Beach as an ashtray. By leaving cigarette butts on the beach, that adds to the pollution of the lake, and that’s our greatest natural resource.”

Not that Chicago’s streets have it any easier. Walk down a busy stretch of the Loop and it’s not unusual to count up hundreds of butts in a blocklong stretch. That butts turn up with such abundance irks Matt Smith, spokesman for the Department of Streets and Sanitation.

“Smokers tend not to be very courteous with their material disposal,” Smith said. “It gets thrown down and we have to sweep it up with our regular street debris. It’s an ongoing problem; it’s dirty and a remnant of someone’s habit.”

The city has no specific laws against cigarette butt litter on streets, Smith added, because that kind of behavior is already covered by something called the Casting Refuse and Liquids Ordinance. Under that law, a smoker caught tossing a butt from a moving car or on a public sidewalk could get fined anywhere from $50 to $200.

Long ‘shelf’ life
Estimates on how long it takes a cigarette butt to turn into a fine powder vary, but the consensus places it at somewhere between 10 and 15 years. Yet butts don’t biodegrade, they only break down. The distinction is important to environmentalists, who say butts end up as a plastic residue that stays in ecosystems for decades. A substance that biodegrades, by contrast, is usually organic: plant or animal matter neutralized by enzymes or sunlight.

The bottom line: Old cigarette butts only get diluted or buried. They never truly vanish.

An estimated 1.7 billion pounds of cigarette butts accumulate in lakes, oceans, on beaches and the rest of the planet annually, according to the New Jersey-based American Littoral Society, a coastal environmental organization. And to understand the full impact of all those butts, it helps to know what goes into one. The 12,000 strands in a typical filter might resemble cotton, but they’re made of something else entirely: a plastic called cellulose acetate, bound to outer paper layers by glue. And because that tiny filter you flick from your fingers is attached to a tobacco product potent enough to earn a Surgeon General’s warning, it contains a host of potent chemicals. Among them: carcinogens such as benzopyrene and formaldehyde; poisons such as arsenic, lead, acetone, toluene, cadmium, nicotine and benzene; and hazardous chemicals such as butane and ammonia.

If only the dangers stopped there. Butts still containing traces of lit tobacco pose a serious fire hazard; extinguished ones are a threat to marine life and a temptation to toddlers on playgrounds, who tend to put most anything in their mouths.

“It really gets under my skin,” said Mary Eileen Sullivan, director of volunteers for Friends of the Parks. “My big frustration with the playgrounds is that it’s a kid space and an adult space, and it’s the adults who leave these things behind.”

Sullivan organizes some 40 community cleanups and a huge Earth Day sweep, but it’s not as if all that effort stems the ceaseless tide of tobacco trash. She sees them as a hazard right up there with broken glass. “I tell people, ‘Who owns the parks?’ Well, you own the parks—and it’s your responsibility to keep them free of cigarette butts. And I am not anti-smoking, I’m an anti-litter person.”

Smith echoes those feelings. As the group’s education program director, she’s fought hard to bring the cigarette butt problem into public consciousness; the new beach law, passed last October, came after two years of Alliance of the Great Lakes appeals to City Hall. “Our organization is not saying people should not smoke,” said Smith, a seven-year veteran of the environmental organization that has offices in Chicago, Milwaukee and Grand Haven, Mich. “We’re saying, ‘clean up after yourself.’ This is our number one item that we find, every single year. I just find myself getting more passionate about it.”

‘Tried everything’
She adds: “We’ve tried everything with smokers. Unfortunately, this law may be the only way we can get through to them.”

Even so, the problem may persist. In 2006, a cleanup sponsored by the Ocean Conservancy netted more than 2,700 butts along the 1½ mile stretch of 12th originalslug=chi-cigarette-butts-0618-nujun18

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