For the environmental advocacy group Surfrider, a plan to curb the littering of cigarette butts began with energetic optimism. It was 1992, and at the time, cigarette filters were the single most frequently occurring item found in most beach cleanups – a statistic the organization hoped to erase.
However, the Hold On To Your Butt campaign has dragged on and on. Even as the 23rd annual California Coast Cleanup Day on September 15, 2018, calculates its successes – in terms of tons of trash removed from the state’s shores – on the butt end it continues as a humbling exercise in futility.
“Cigarette butts are still the number one item that we find,” says Shelly Ericksen, the director of the San Francisco chapter of Surfrider’s campaign. “It’s pretty clear we haven’t made a recognizable dent in the numbers.”
In the San Francisco Bay Area alone, smokers are estimated to litter 3 billion used filters every year, and no amount of research, campaigning, legislation and education can stifle this waste stream. There is hardly a city block or a beach, anywhere, that isn’t strewn with cigarette butts. Public roadways are lined with billions. Hikers find them on trails. Birds use them to build nests. Animals eat them.
Mobilized by water, wind and gravity, many or most eventually wind up in streams and storm drains and, eventually, the ocean, where it’s probable they are having a variety of negative impacts that scientists are trying to understand. Laboratory research has shown that cigarette butts – generally made of a type of plastic called cellulose acetate and laced with chemicals – are acutely toxic. A study published in 2011 in the journal Tobacco Control showed that a single butt in a liter of water can lethally poison a fish.
How littered cigarette butts affect wildlife, however, is still unclear. Rebecca Sutton, a senior scientist with the San Francisco Estuary Institute, is collaborating with scientist Chelsea Rochman at the University of Toronto to better understand the impacts that plastic microfibers – including those that come from cigarette filters – have on aquatic ecosystems. So far, their research has found that San Francisco Bay water contains anywhere from two to 10 times as many microplastic particles as water samples from Chesapeake Bay. Sutton also says she has found clear evidence that northern anchovy and topsmelt – two key prey species in California – caught in bay waters are consuming anthropogenic microfibers.
“We know cigarette butts contain toxic chemicals, and because they break down in the environment, they probably cause both physical and chemical problems when animals ingest the plastic fibers,” Sutton says. “What we don’t yet know is what level of concentrations in the environment is harming animals.”
Thomas Novotny, a San Diego State University professor of epidemiology and biostatistics, is widely recognized as a leader in tobacco waste research. He collaborated on the Tobacco Control paper describing the toxicity of cigarette butts in a laboratory setting. He says it is safe to assume, based on scientific logic and the sheer chemical danger of cigarettes, that they pose a toxic threat to fish and other wildlife in wild ecosystems.
“The precautionary principle says that even without specific data or proof of a health hazard, you can assume contamination is happening because of the fact that you have toxic chemicals coming out of cigarette butts and entering our water,” he says.
Novotny adds that, “even if the toxicity isn’t an issue, the plastic fibers never completely go away.”
While scientists investigate how discarded butts affect wild ecosystems, the scale of the problem grows, and grows, and grows. Globally, smokers burn through some 6 trillion cigarettes each year, according to widely cited figures, and it is estimated that most of them – somewhere between 500,000 and 1 million tons of cigarette filters – are discarded into the environment annually. Even as the issue of marine plastic pollution draws high-profile attention from media and activism, cigarette butt litter remains one of the last socially accepted forms of illegal polluting.
Anti-littering campaigners are grappling with how to change this, but they are making little progress. To their great dismay, legislation that would have outright banned single-use cigarette filters in California – essentially solving the problem – was rejected in May. That legislation – Assembly Bill 2308 – was promoted both on the grounds that filters provide no protection to smokers, according to research, and that they pose an environmental hazard. The state Assembly voted it down 10 to 5 on May 2, 2018.
“That was extremely disappointing,” says Miriam Gordon, the San Francisco-based California policy advocate for the anti-waste organization Upstream. Gordon’s organization promotes strategies to reduce the use of disposable and nonbiodegradable packaging and products, currently ubiquitous in most societies.
“Eliminating the filter would have been the solution, but until we raise more awareness among legislators and their constituents of the false health promise of the filter and of the tremendous marine impacts of littering cigarette filters, banning the things is not going to happen,” Gordon says.
Trouble is, that seems to be the only real solution. Education, for instance, doesn’t seem to be working. Research shows that most smokers litter their butts even though they know they shouldn’t. In a paper published in 2012 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, the authors reported that 72 percent of 1,000 surveyed smokers admitted knowing that cigarettes are toxic, and 86 percent said they believe them to be litter. Still, 74.1 percent of smokers admitted to having tossed a cigarette butt to the ground or from a car at least once.
Placement of disposal bins at littering hot spots is making a nominal difference, at best. Surfrider has reported that the 40 “buttcans” it helped install in San Francisco keep about 120,000 butts out of the environment each year – relatively insignificant given the billions littered annually in the Bay Area. Ericksen says they tend to make a difference in littering rates only in their immediate vicinity – on the scale of yards. In the scenic Marin Headlands, cigarette butts are routinely discarded just feet from cigarette butt disposal cans – “smoke stacks,” as the park service calls them – placed at popular vista points.
Anti-littering laws are not curbing the problem, either, since police officers and park rangers almost everywhere pretty much ignore the matter. Between 2011 and 2015, for one example, the City of Berkeley issued citations for illegal cigarette butt disposal just 27 times.
Since significantly reducing the littering may be an impossible goal, methods are being explored to screen cigarette butts out of waterways. Around the Bay Area, thousands of trash capture devices have been installed in storm drains since 2009 by the order of the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board. Chris Sommers, a private consultant in Oakland who specializes in stormwater and wastewater management, says the devices are designed to catch all debris with a diameter of 0.2in (5mm) or more.
“That dimension was specifically designed to not allow cigarette butts through,” he says.
The devices work, too. Cigarette butts are often found in them, Sommers says, and very rough calculations suggest the screens are preventing several million of the toxic stubs from entering San Francisco Bay each year.
These capture devices (effective but expensive to install everywhere), and other actions that can slow the mass migration of cigarette butts into the environment, are considered to be “downstream” solutions, but Gordon, at Upstream, thinks they aren’t up to the sheer scope of the problem. Law enforcement, she says,“is never going to take up cigarette litter as a priority.” She also points out that “cigarette butts don’t only get into the marine environment through storm drains, so that doesn’t solve the problem.”
“My organization is called ‘Upstream’ because we believe in solving marine debris and pollution problems at the source,” Gordon says. “With cigarette butts, we are looking at the best way to eliminate them at the source, and the only real solution is to eliminate the filter.”
This article was originally published by Estuary News, a monthly publication of the San Francisco Estuary Partnership.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.