How should a municipality deal with cigarette litter?


Telegraph UK imageI was sitting on a decorative rock on the landscaping west of Loblaws, this weekend, waiting while Susan was inside and amusing myself at the bad driving habits of our city visitors in the parking lot. I happened to look down and saw what little, rough grass there was, was almost totally buried in cigarette butts. Toxic, non-decaying, environmentally hazardous and socially hostile cigarette butts. Ugh.

It’s not just there, it’s everywhere. Look along the streets, sidewalks, in the park grass. Thousands of cigarette butts, dozens, maybe hundreds of wrappers and packages every kilometer you walk.

An estimated two million cigarette butts are littered in the USA every day. Phillip Morris even notes that cigarette butts make up the first item of garbage on every American beach. It’s not simply a problem: it’s a disaster. This stuff is seriously toxic.

According to Legacy For Health, in the USA this is has become a significant health threat:

Data from the Ocean Conservancy shows that in 2010, over one million (1,181,589) cigarettes or cigarette filters—enough to fill 94,626 packs—were removed from American beaches and inland waterways as part of the annual International Coastal Cleanup (ICC). This represents about 31% of the total debris items collected and by far the most prevalent item found.
° in addition to cigarettes and cigarette filters, 16,257 cigarette lighters, 73,155 cigar tips, and 36,592 tobacco packages or wrappers were removed from US waterways during the ICC in 2010.
° Growing concerns over the impact of tobacco waste on the environment as well as the substantial costs of cleanup have prompted states, municipalities, and institutions to undertake a variety of policy actions.
° As of July 1st 2012, 130 municipalities across the country prohibit smoking on their beaches, while 625 prohibit smoking in their parks.
° Studies have examined the toxicity of cigarette butts to aquatic ecosystems. Preliminary studies show that organic compounds, such as nicotine, pesticide residues, and metal, seep out of cigarette butts and become acutely toxic to fish and micro-organisms.

Cigarettelitter notes:

There is a lot of misinformation out there regarding cigarette butt litter. The biggest myth is that cigarette filters are biodegradable. In fact, cigarette butts are not biodegradable in the sense that most people think of the word. The acetate (plastic) filters can take many years to decompose. Smokers may not realize that their actions have such a lasting, negative impact on the environment.
This myth has been perpetuated not just by the wishful thinking of many smokers, but also by the cigarette companies, who have taken great pains to keep their customers in the dark on this issue… Smoking and littering do not have to be synonymous, as many smokers have proven by example.

And over at Preventcigarettelitter, it notes:

A cigarette butt or cigar tip dropped to the ground seems insignificant. But follow that butt as it’s carried off by rain into storm drains and eventually to streams and rivers. It now adds up to a big impact on the places we live: In fact, 32% of litter at storm drains is tobacco products. Cigarette butt litter creates blight. It accumulates in gutters, and outside doorways and bus shelters. It’s the number one most littered item anywhere. Increasing amounts of litter in a business district, along riverfronts, or recreation areas create a sense that no one cares, leading to more community disorder and crime.
Cigarette butts and cigar tips don’t disappear. About 95% of cigarette filters are composed of cellulose acetate, a form of plastic which does not quickly degrade and can persist in the environment. Cigar tips, too, are predominantly plastic.

The foul cigarette garbage stays in the environment virtually forever, polluting and poisoning for generations after it’s been thrown away. Whyquit.com gives some sobering international stats:

Is mother earth being rained upon by two billion cigarette butts each day? Although accurate butt facts are rare, that’s an average of less than two cigarette butts daily from each of earth’s 1.2 billion smokers, just 13% of the estimated 15 billion filtered cigarettes being smoked each day.

What we do know is that worldwide 5.6 trillion filtered cigarettes are smoked annually, with an estimated 1.7 billion pounds of cigarette butt litter. Here in the U.S., more than 1.35 trillion cigarettes were manufactured in 2007, of which 360 billion were smoked here… Are cigarette butts litter? Absolutely! But unlike paper products they’re not biodegradable. Nearly all cigarette filters are composed of a bundle of 12,000 plastic-like cellulose acetate fibers. Cellulose acetate is photodegradable but not bio-degradable. It can take years, in some cases up to fifteen, for ultraviolet light to cause fibers to decay into a plastic powder that can’t be seen. As they do their deadly cargo is released.

The nicotine trapped inside 200 used filters is likely sufficient to kill a 160 pound adult human – 50 to 60 milligrams. Imagine a month without rain followed by a brief thunderstorm that washes 500,000 nicotine laden canoes – enough to kill 2,500 humans – into area creeks and streams. Aquatic life at the bottom of the food chain can pay a deadly price. But so can fish who mistake butts for food or birds who use them for nesting material. Nicotine isn’t the only villain as trapped tars and toxic gases leach into waterways too. Tar refers to the more than three thousand five hundred chemical particles and five hundred gases generated by each burning cigarette that include arsenic, vinyl chloride, acetone, mercury and lead. Modern filters trap roughly half the tar while capturing one-third of a cigarette’s formaldehyde and two-thirds of its hydrogen cyanide. Pick up a few dozen butts and take a big whiff. Smell the scent of bitter almonds? That’s hydrogen cyanide.

Cigarette buttsEvery day I walk around the town with my dog; I walk through parks, along side streets and often into the downtown. Every day I encounter litter from smokers: cigarette butts, discarded wrappers and packages, empty lighters or matchbooks. I’ve watched smokers in cars lean out and dump their ashtrays on the ground beside them. Really!

Go to the doorway in front of the Eddie Bush Arena and look at the ground: hundreds of cigarette butts, unless town staff had cleaned them up (in which case come back in a few hours…). Look in front of the benches on the main street, or in front of Tim Horton’s downtown. Look behind the Arlington Mall where smokers gather. They’re filthy with butts.

Now we could – at taxpayer expense – provide cigarette disposal containers all over town. But that means taxpayers are paying for the minority’s addictive and dirty habit. We’d have to pay someone to empty them, too, a job as hazardous to the employee’s health as having to inhale secondhand tobacco smoke. Asbestos miners are probably in the same category of health risk.

Why should the majority have to pay to pick up after the minority? Isn’t it like picking up after your dog – the responsibility of the owner?

Those butts get swept or washed into our storm sewers and into the bay, where we get our water from. Every butt contains toxic, lethal chemicals that get dissolved in our drinking water. Smokers who litter are not just hurting themselves – they’re hurting everyone. We should have a policy about cigarette butt disposal as stringent as that about secondhand smoke: zero tolerance.

The Trail of Harm story adds this:

In the cities, a street sweeper or maintenance crew will most likely remove the cigarette butt from wherever it got flicked to at one point, but even then, the cigarette butts have left their mark. Some of the chemicals trapped in them have leaked onto the streets and pavement. They will remain there waiting for weeks on end. Waiting for water to wash them away into streams, canals, rivers, lakes, bays, seas, and oceans where they kill off the smallest of plant and animal life that allow the bigger animals that become the food of even bigger animals – and of us – to thrive. The cigarette butt that does break down after 15 years resigns itself to the same fate, the tiny plastic particles get washed away and they, too, threaten wildlife everywhere.

Smoking, as every knows, is stupid. There’s no one going to say it’s a smart habit any more than any addiction is smart. In Canada, on average fewer than one in five people still smoke (17% according to Statistics Canada, a drop from 19% a few years ago). In Simcoe County, that figure is much higher – about 30% according to the local health unit (I wrote about this several years ago, so the numbers may have changed since).

But the amount of cigarette litter – butts and packages – makes it seem like a much higher number. That’s because all smokers litter. A pack a day means 20 used butts and one used package. Much of it dropped on public property.

Does all this litter mean one of the side effects of tobacco is to make you less socially responsible, and more hostile towards your neighbours and community? It’s not like everyone isn’t aware of the problem or of the serious risks that cigarette butts represent. So why do smokers litter?

The City of Sarnia warns people not to litter their butts on the local beaches:

The impact of cigarette smoking on our health care system has long been recognized and documented. The Sarnia Environmental Advisory Committee has noted that the impact of cigarette smoking on our ecosystem has received much less attention. The long term environmental impact of cigarette smoking affects all areas of our ecosystem including air, soil and water. Discarding cigarette butts into the environment also poses a safety concern to the public as they may set fire to garbage bins, brush and trees.

So does the City of Edmonton:

Every day thousands of cigarette butts are carelessly tossed onto city streets, sidewalks, and green spaces in Edmonton. Improperly disposed cigarette butts can harm our environment in a number of ways:

They contain chemicals that are harmful to the environment.
Fish, birds, and other animals mistake cigarette filters for food and are poisoned by them.
The chemicals from tossed butts leach into our water system.
They are not biodegradable and can take 1-12 years to break down.
They leave the impression that Edmontonians don’t care about the cleanliness of our city.

Edmonton’s website also clearly notes you can be fined for this habit:

Discarding cigarette butts on the ground is littering and subject to a $250 fine under Bylaw 14614. Please dispose of your butts responsibly.

So it is in most cities, just not enforced (it’s become a national issue in England). In a Montreal Gazette blog, a writer noted the problem in that city:

Stand on any street corner in downtown Montreal or hang around outside the city’s most popular restaurants and you will see scores of people throwing toxic litter on to the ground without giving it a nanosecond of thought.

Cigarette butts by the tens of thousands are tossed onto streets, down sewers or through hedges every day in this city and, as a general rule, we turn a blind eye to it.

W hen did you last see a smoker grind out his butt with his boot and then pick up the butt and either put it in a trash can or one of those overflowing outdoor ashtrays? Odds are  you have never seen such a thing. You, like me,  probably consider yourself lucky that you miss being hit by the burning projectile it is hurled into the street.

Collingwood has a “Public Nuisance” bylaw (number: 2013-021) that defined litter as:

…to throw, drop, place, or otherwise deposit or permit to be deposited any garbage, paper, plastic, paper products, plastic products, cans, rubbish, or other debris on property;

Which clearly includes cigarette butts and packages. The bylaw it warns that

3.7 No person shall leave, throw or deposit any refuse or litter on any public or private property without authorization from the owner.

But I have never seen this enforced with regard to cigarette butts. The City of Cobourg recently upgraded its anti-litter bylaw to focus on cigarette butts. Cobourg Mayor Gil Brocanier is quoted saying:

“I have been doing so many business calls in the downtown with our small business specialist, and one of the complaints I hear most often is the amount of cigarette butts in certain places,” he said. “There were so many cigarette butts littering the sidewalk, I couldn’t walk anywhere without stepping on them. It’s absolutely disgusting.”

In a related story, Deputy Mayor Stan Frost said a public education program was also needed:

“…along with passing a bylaw, we will need to make sure we have effective communications on this. I have seen billboards in South Carolina to the effect that, ‘Our state is not an ashtray.’ I think we can possibly afford that sort of sign around town: ‘Our town is not an ashtray. Please be responsible.’”

Perhaps it’s time to revamp and strengthen our own bylaw, here in Collingwood. We might even consider requiring some businesses to provide ashtrays outside their doors for employees who smoke. As this study notes, the availability of ashtrays reduces cigarette litter:

• 38% of cigarette butt littering is associated with the physical environment, including the number of ash receptacles. The presence of ash receptacles, either as stand-alone, or integrated into a trash can, correlates with lower rates of cigarette butt littering.
• For every additional ash receptacle, the littering rate for cigarette butts decreases by 9%.
• At the time of improper disposal, litterers were an average of 31 feet from an ash receptacle. While trash receptacles are widespread (at 91% of observed sites), ash receptacles are less common, with only 47% of observed sites having an ash only or ash/trash receptacle.
• Of smokers who work, 41.8% report that they do not have receptacles for cigarette butts at their work location.

Starbucks recently took a proactive stand by banning smoking within 7.6m (25′) of store entrances, as this CBC story announced:

 “Effective June 1, Starbucks’ existing no-smoking policy will be extended to include outdoor seating areas of our company-owned stores in Canada,” spokesperson Carly Suppa told CBC News in an email. ” We want to provide all customers a safe, healthy environment and an experience that is consistent across our company-owned stores.”

This has become a debate throughout the hospitality industry.

However, while it lowers the risk from poisonous secondhand smoke it does not address the issue of litter. Does Starbucks provide and maintain ashtrays at that distant border? If not, all they’ve done is transfer the problem from their front door to public property. The taxpayers will end up paying for the cleanup, and for the increased toxic residue that affects public land – including the health effects.

Ideally, the federal and provincial governments could add another tax to cigarettes to pay for the costs to clean up the litter, recycle the butts, and cover potential health care costs for the waste. But a good portion of that money would have to be passed along to municipalities to pay the cleanup and collection costs. Not a likely scenario.

Collingwood residents deserve better. We need to be more proactive about cigarette litter.We need to enforce our bylaw more strictly; we need a public awareness and education campaign against litter; and we need to engage local businesses to help create an environment where employee litter is contained and disposed of safely.

One thought on “How should a municipality deal with cigarette litter?


  1. This just in:

    http://www.fastcoexist.com/3016570/it-will-now-be-illegal-to-toss-a-cigarette-butt-in-chicago

    It Will Now Be Illegal To Toss A Cigarette Butt In Chicago The state of Illinois is now taking a stand against the most casual and acceptable form of litter.

    According to Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights, an advocacy group, butts are the most commonly discarded waste around the world–a whopping 1.7 billion pounds are trashed each year, filled with toxic compounds.

    The state of Illinois is now doing something about it, having passed a law that makes it illegal to toss a butt on the ground or out the car window. Beginning next year, violators will face up to a $1,500 fine for littering their butts, reports the Rockford Register Star. If they’re caught, of course.