Don’t toss that butt

Published 8:40 pm Tuesday, July 14, 2015

They’re so small that it must seem like a little thing to toss cigarette butts on the ground. From the window of a moving car, there’s a pretty good chance nobody would even notice a burned-down cigarette being flicked to the pavement. No harm, no foul, right?

But the city of Suffolk has joined six other Hampton Roads localities and in a national Keep America Beautiful campaign that aims to turn the conventional thinking about cigarette butts on its head. Cigarette butts tossed onto the ground are litter, and they’re trying to get that message across to a population of smokers that has never really thought of things that way.

The anecdotal evidence is hard to ignore. Look alongside the curb at the next traffic light you’re stopped at, and you’ll see them lying there in nearly the same state they were in when they were flicked from a car days before. Next time you’re walking from your vehicle into Walmart, count the cigarette butts you pass along the way. There’s even a good chance you’ve had the ugly experience of watching someone clean his car ashtray by dumping a pile of butts and ashes on the ground and then driving away.

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The results are unsightly, but they’re also bad for the environment. Toxins in the filters leach into the environment, the filters themselves do not decompose, and a lit butt can spark a wildfire during a dry spell, officials say.

According to Keep America Beautiful, cigarette butts represent 38 percent of roadway litter, 32 percent of litter in storm drains and 32 percent of litter in outdoor recreation areas. They are not biodegradable because they contain cellulose acetate, a form of plastic that will persist in the environment.

A pack-a-day smoker who tosses just five butts a day onto the ground — and many smokers throw far more than that each day — would have flicked nearly 2,000 in a year’s time. One butt might not seem like a big deal, but imagine 2,000 of them washing into the river. No — imagine those 2,000 butts multiplied by all the smokers in Suffolk.

It would be easy to eliminate this form of litter from our landscapes. Smokers can identify a cigarette butt receptacle before lighting up, carry a pocket ashtray, encourage fellow smokers to be responsible for their litter and never throw butts out of car windows. Of course, they could also quit smoking, which would probably make their loved ones very happy.

Sometimes it’s just a matter of helping people to see that the bad habits they’ve developed have effects on others, too. The anti-littering campaigns of the 1970s made a big difference in the amount of litter found alongside the nation’s roads. The same could be true of cigarette butts as a result of this campaign. That would be a great accomplishment.