Sunday, October 3, 2010

Ashes to Ashes?

In early July I sat down to write a post about cigarettes and filter waste. What I had discovered... well, it woke me up. The scale of the pollution, the number of toxins, the proof that cigarettes kill marine life. I decided that I needed to learn more.

This summer I learned:
  • That cigarette butts litter my lovely beach (and every public space I walk through).
  • That the big "Tobacco-Free Area" sign on the lifeguard station did nothing to slow the weekly deluge.
  • That a small, quiet beach in southern Maine can collect almost 2,000 filters in the course of the summer.
  • And that filters really do wash up onto the beach from the ocean. I've seen it.
It's the last point that gets me. All those butts you see in the gutter, they go into the storm drains. Then to a nearby river or stream. Then to the ocean.

Think I'm wrong, and that they break down? Let's try a little experiment. Let's fill a 5-gallon bucket with water (fresh water, representing your local storm drain/river). Let's put some sand, wood, and a rock in it to simulate nature. Then let's drop a freshly-found cigarette butt into it. Every day or so let's swirl the cigarette around 25 times to simulate the churning it goes through in the "wild."
Day 1 - August 28, 2010
Give it a couple days.
Day 3
Give it another day, and something unexpected happens.
Day 4
Look at that! After 3 days it mysteriously sinks. But it's easily picked up by even gentle swirls of water. Like, say, a stream slowly meandering down to the ocean. Let's keep rolling.
Day 9
Still intact.
Day 14
Still intact.
Day 24
Still intact. And then finally to the latest picture from a day ago:
Day 35... and counting
So, it's more than a month in now. The paper's a little scraped. But the filter is still completely intact and unchanged. It does sink in a foot of fresh water, but it also moves very easily when any current is applied. After my experiment reaches two months, I'll switch to a bucket of saltwater to represent it emptying into the ocean. I'll swirl it more frequently to represent tides and waves. And we'll just keep going. How long do you think it'll be before it breaks down?

Here's another fun one. What happens if you subject a cigarette butt to a washing machine on normal cycle and then a dryer for an hour on medium heat? Not much.
Looks like.... a cigarette butt
5.5 trillion cigarettes are manufactured every year. Best studies suggest that only 10% make it properly into an ashtray or receptacle. But let's be generous. Let's say 90% make it. That still leaves 550 billion -- 550,000,000,000 -- littered. Every year. And they don't go away. They don't go away. Because they're plastic -- cellulose acetate. They will last for years. And even when they do finally dissolve to a powder that you can't see, they're still plastic. 

The tobacco industry is in no hurry to tell consumers that filters are plastic. Why? They found that smokers tend to ritualize the act of stubbing out a butt at the end of their cigarette (see p. 6 of the PDF file in the link). Most smokers simply don't think their actions are so far-reaching. What would it do to the industry's bottom line if smokers knew that most or all of the butts they've ever discarded onto the ground still exist?


  1. Very interesting. I love easy experiments like this that have such obvious results! What do you think of smoking bans on beaches? Do they work? Going to a meeting tonight to hear about the possibility in NH.

  2. I'm on the fence. I mean, there are already anti-littering laws. But there aren't enough officers to enforce them. And also perhaps not enough public buy-in to change attitudes. Bay View had a HUGE no-smoking sign on the lifeguard tower all summer, and the # of butts didn't change. My friend Sara from says there are laws in Santa Monica, but she's always finding butts and cigarette packs.

    Until people see the problem, and care, another new law risks being just another rallying cry against the "nanny state." In my world, I'd combine education, warning about existing laws, beefed-up enforcement, and most importantly, an alternative. I'd like to see all beach access points have prominent notices as well as a well-maintained ashtray. Without giving smokers a reason to do the right thing & simple way to do it, it's hard to expect much to change.

    I'll be very interested to hear what gets discussed tonight, if you're willing to share!

  3. How about deposits on butts?! No, really. Make the butts worth picking up and let the manufacturers dispose of them.

  4. I'm actually very much in favor of something like that. It's not a tax, because people can avoid paying anything just by doing the right thing. And of course anything left scattered around is far more likely to get picked up.

    Here's the trick though -- identification. With a bottle, the label is clear. How can a state ID a cigarette filter, so that someone doesn't cross state lines, scoop up 10,000 butts on a beach in a weekend, and rake in the bucks?

  5. Wow, I love the deposit idea! At ~75,000 butts a year collected during beach cleanups, that's a good fundraiser for a small non-profit!

  6. Great idea! How about the same for chewing gum!? Newcastle Tyneside Council spends millions just cleaning up these awful things...

  7. Plus all the hidden costs that blight brings with it (lower property value, fewer visitors, less investment, health risks, etc.). I really do think it's a great idea, if the kinks are worked out for avoiding abuse. Wonder if anybody's doing it in a city somewhere, and whether it really is working?