Health / Millions of cigarette butts find their way onto our state’s beaches and nature trails, into city parks and on sidewalks and school playgrounds every day. Cigarette butts–the most littered item in the nation and the world–are more than an eyesore. They contain toxic filters made of cellulose acetate that small children sometimes eat after smokers carelessly flick them from car windows. And they can take decades to degrade.
Not only does cigarette litter ruin even the most beautiful settings, the toxic filters can kill fish, leach into the environment and cause numerous fires.
“Have you ever stopped at a stoplight and noticed all the cigarette butts right at the storm drain?” asks City and County of Honolulu Recycling Branch Chief Suzanne Jones. “That happens when smokers stop at a stoplight, open their door and then empty their ashtrays onto the street under their car.”
“Cigarette butts are the most-littered item in America, representing nearly 30 percent of all items collected in cleanup initiatives,” says Adam Roberts, executive director of the Arkansas Beautification Commission. His organization offers free pocket and portable ashtrays to smokers.
Ironically, the increase in cigarette butts throughout our Islands is partially a consequence of the Smoke-Free Hawaii Law, established Nov. 16, 2006, which bans smoking in all public places such as restaurants, bowling alleys, malls and airports. The law made it illegal to light up in partially enclosed areas, bars and less than 20 feet from doorways and windows.
Today, the cigarette ban is fairly well accepted among tourists and residents alike, although some bar and restaurant owners complain it limits the time smoking customers linger in their establishments.
Jones admits that cigarette butts can be a problem here. “Tourists are sitting on a beach in Hawai’i, where they couldn’t be more connected to our beautiful environment, and they discover a pile of partially buried cigarette butts. What kind of connection about Hawaii does this make in their minds?”
A recent study by Chinese researchers recommends expanding community recycling programs beyond newspapers, beverage containers and other conventional trash to include “tiny trash”–cigarette butts–that the study calls “one of the most ubiquitous forms of garbage in the world.”
Jun Zhao and his colleagues suggest that recycling could solve those problems, now that a practical use for cigarette butts has been discovered. The team claims that extracts of cigarette butts can be applied to certain types of steel used in the oil industry, protecting the steel from rusting and saving oil producers millions of dollars annually. A fashion designer in Brazil has perfected a method for transforming cigarette filters into wool to make clothing, and an Ohio inventor has discovered a way to turn cigarette butts into adhesives and sealants.
If a bill recently proposed by New York City Assemblyman Michael G. DenDekker passes, NYC will soon have a cigarette butt recycling program funded by a one-cent deposit on every cigarette. His mission is to create jobs and help clean up the state’s environment. Establishing a recycling program will not be easy. He’s looking for a way to dispose of the non-biodegradable cigarette filters.
In many European cities, street sweepers are hired to dispose of cigarette butts.
The real deal–changing behaviors
Jones has a different view. The Chinese study doesn’t make sense, she points out. “It appears to be much ado to collect and process cigarette butts for recycling when the real problem is littering.”
If smokers would properly use ashtrays or other receptacles for their cigarette butts–or if they stopped smoking altogether–the problem would be minimal.
Oahu’s H-POWER, a waste-to-energy facility, can efficiently process all the cigarette butts along with general trash, and the process also benefits the island with local power generation, according to Jones.
“The advent of a recycling program for cigarette butts, however, would probably not alter the butt-flicking behavior of many smokers,” Jones adds. “The bottom line is we have to help smokers change their behavior.”
The city has engaged Doug McKenzie-Mohr, Ph.D., an environmental psychologist and author of Fostering Sustainable Behavior: An Introduction to Community-Based Social Marketing. McKenzie-Mohr conducts training classes for city and county recycling crews and works with various local community and academic groups battling illegal dumping and littering. (His website: [www.cbsm.com].)
Environmental psychology, a relatively new field, predicts the environmental conditions under which humans will behave in a responsible and creative manner. The focus is on how people form their relationships with the natural world, including how they make environmentally-related consumer decisions.
“Environmental psychology teaches you how to change your environment to improve the quality of your life and experience peace, joy and prosperity,” says one student.
Overcoming smoking and littering, like other self-destructive behaviors, requires people to deal with issues honestly and be willing to shift their beliefs, according to Brad Klontz, Psy.D, past president of the Hawai’i Psychological Association. “Sometimes, the wake-up call can be a health crisis, which creates an opportunity to change. But other people choose to ignore it.”
In the case of cigarette butts, the wake-up call can be an environmental crisis. In either case, three conditions must be met for people to succeed in making important behavior changes, according to Klontz. “The person has to believe it’s important to change, have the ability to change, and feel ready to do so.”
Nobody can make you change, Klontz points out. “You have the freedom to change your behavior–or not. But with that freedom comes responsibility. There might be some negative consequences for deciding not to change.”
In the case of smokers, the result of the behavior can lead to heart disease or other life-threatening medical conditions.
Jones continually asks herself: How do we get people to stop smoking, eat a healthier diet and exercise–or stop smokers from using the beaches as a big ashtray?
“The simplistic thing might be to ban them from smoking on the beaches, but is that the kind of society that we want to have? I think it’s time for the general public to think about their personal responsibilities. We’re just saying, ‘Hey, you guys gotta take a look at this.’”
How much is too much?
Eight years ago, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg began an anti-smoking campaign that now bans smoking outdoors in city parks, beaches and even plazas like Times Square. Starting in summer, after the mayor signs the bill into law, smoking will not be allowed on the 14 miles of city beaches or into the city’s 1,700 parks.
“All of this takes the mayor’s nannying too far, even for those of us who want to avoid the hazards of secondhand smoke,” says a recent New York Times editorial. “They need to remember that we tried prohibition 90 years ago. They called it a noble experiment but it turned into a civic disaster.”
Hey cowboy, don’t flip those butts
How did cigarette smokers get the idea that cigarette butts are not rubbish? Did the Marlboro man flip butts on the Wild West range? Would Wyatt Earp allow cowboys to throw butts on a Tombstone street?
Seriously, don’t we have littering laws punishable by fines already on the books? Is there a minimum size for rubbish? We have tough no-smoking laws, and now we need tough no-butt laws.
Smokers know better. They gather together outside in the rain and wind, commiserating with each other while smoking, because they can’t quit. The problem is not cigarette butts, it’s smoking.
In 1983, I joined a quit smoking group at Kaiser Clinic that helped me kick the habit. I learned that smoking is an addiction. Nicotine is the most addictive of all the drugs, but there are dozens of programs to help people quit. When you feel you can’t quit or you don’t want to, it’s the drug talking, not your better half. Like any drug, the voice and cravings diminish as you get farther from your last hit…until you eventually have no cravings at all, just the insane idea that one little cigarette can’t hurt.” —Alvin Ku