Put those dirty butts where they belong

Photo courtesy Sillyputtyenemies/Wikipedia
Photo courtesy Sillyputtyenemies/Wikipedia

Can you name the most common piece of litter found on roads, parking lots, storm drains and beaches?

If you said cigarettes and cigarette butts, you just answered the $16 million question (that’s the high-end estimate of the cost for major cities and municipalities to clean them up).

In 2010, the Ocean Conservancy says, more than one million (1,181,589) cigarettes or cigarette filters were removed from U.S. beaches and inland waterways during the International Coastal Cleanup. “94,626 packs of cigarettes could have been filled with the amount of cigarettes/cigarette butts collected in 2010,” the conservancy wrote.

Many people — smokers and nonsmokers alike — think that cigarettes are biodegradable. And while it’s true that cigarette filters are made of cellulose acetate, which is a type of biodegradable plastic, they degrade only under certain types of conditions, and even then can take months to break down.

The ones found on streets, sidewalks, beaches and everywhere else generally don’t break down at all. The butts also contain — and leach into soil and water — chemicals like lead, arsenic, cadmium, nicotine and various pesticides and fungicides (which were used to grow the tobacco).

To complicate matters, cigarette butts are often mistaken for food by turtles, birds, dolphins, fish and other animals. They can become fatally lodged in the animals’ digestive tracks, and even when they don’t, they expose the animals to all the chemicals mentioned above. Nicotine alone is lethal to some types of fish and other organisms. Add in the other junk … well, you should be getting the picture by now.

Short of quitting altogether (think of the money it would save, let alone the benefits to your health!), you can make sure you properly dispose of cigarette butts in an ashtray. Make sure they’re fully extinguished, too. Every year, burning cigarettes flicked out windows or carelessly dropped spark fires that lead to millions of dollars in damages.

If you’re ready to give up the butts, you can get more information from the American Lung Association.

In the meantime, do your part to keep dirty butts off the streets and sidewalks and out of the water.