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Downtown Reflections. Photograph by Brian Cohen.
Downtown Reflections. Photograph by Brian Cohen. | Show Photo

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Stamping Out Cigarette Butt Litter

Pittsburgh’s streets. like many city streets, are littered with cigarette butts. They fill the cracks between the sidewalks, the grates under century-old trees, the gutters before a storm. They’re on a corner in Oakland, surrounding a bus shelter Downtown, in front of a South Side bar. Somtimes with trashcans and sand-filled urns just steps away, cigarettes are stubbed into the ground without consideration or understanding of how that piece of trash will pollute the health and stability of Pittsburgh’s people and natural resources.Which is why some Pittsburgh groups are fighting back to clean up our streets.

Cigarette smoking’s impact on individual health is certainly well documented.  But smoking is more of a public health issue than people often realize. Not just in terms of secondhand smoke—which is linked to heart attacks and asthma attacks, among other ailments—but in terms of environmental impact.

The stink about cigarette butts
The Cigarette Litter Prevention Program, created by Philip Morris’ Keep America Beautiful, reports that butts constitute 28 to 33 percent of all litter nationwide, measured by item number, not volume. Similarly, the nonprofit Ocean Conservancy has found butts account for 28 percent of littered items washing onto beaches worldwide.

Yes, cigarette butts are litter and no, they’re not natural. They don’t biodegrade. Just like a balled up sandwich wrapper, an empty coffee cup or an abandoned newspaper, cigarette butts are trash that needs to be properly disposed of.

Cigarette butt litter is not just unsightly; but it's costly to clean up, nine times more costly than other trash, according to Pennsylvania Resources Council. And by its very nature, this litter is hazardous to human health and the environment. Cast-off butts are easily carried into storm water runoff through drainage systems, and eventually to local streams, rivers and other bodies of water, where they constitute a hazard to aquatic life. While tobacco leaves and paper wrappings may be biodegradable, cigarette filters contain cellulose acetate, a form of plastic that persists in the environment for long periods of time, according to Chimeremma Nnadi, M.D., a tobacco researcher at the University of Pittsburgh. Depending on the conditions of the area in which the butt is discarded, it can take up to 10 years to decompose, and on average takes one-and-a-half years.
    
Furthermore, when butts are washed into storm drains, the toxins trapped in the filters are released, too. According to Dr. Nnadi, cigarette butts contain high levels of heavy metal and potentially carcinogenic substances.

Surprisingly, the impact of cigarette butt litter on our water is a fairly new area of concern.

“I’ve been looking at water literature for 25 years and have never seen an article on it,” says David A. Dzombak, Ph.D., faculty director of Carnegie Mellon University’s Steinbrenner Institute for Environmental Education and Research. “There’s a lot of debris that gets washed off our streets in stormwater and carried into the sewers of Pittsburgh. Cigarettes do have a number of compounds, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and benzene, that could be leached into the water, but the extent of the impact on aquatic life and human health depends on concentration.”

Various Pittsburgh organizations, including 3 Rivers Wet Weather (3RWW) and Nine Mile Run Watershed Association, are currently working on improving the city’s stormwater management. Tracy Schubert, 3RWW public outreach manager, says, “What you’re doing in your little piece of the world does matter. Whether that means not throwing your cigarette butt on the ground, or doing something more proactive on your property, such as planting trees and shrubs, limiting use of pesticides, using a rain barrel or even planting a rain garden."

Benchmark It
So how does Pittsburgh’s cigarette litter measure up to the rest of the country?

For starters, we smoke more than many other cities. According to 2007 statistics from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, accessed on pittsburghtoday.org, 20.2 percent of Pittsburgh’s adult population currently smokes. The U.S. average? 18.3 percent.

The statewide Clean Indoor Air Act, which went into effect last year, has changed the way we smoke in public but the implications have yet to be reported beyond anecdotally. While indoor second hand smoke has decreased, smokers are now taking their habit outside. Instead of using indoor ashtrays, they are now discarding butts outdoors. And if an outdoor ash receptacle is unavailable or just undesirable for whatever reason, then smokers end up littering.
 
Just this spring, when the University of Pittsburgh’s ReSET Center decided to hold a cigarette butt art contest, it took students only one hour to collect 12 cups of butts in Oakland, all found within 15 feet of doorways, despite University policy prohibiting smoking near main building entrances, a policy similar to that upheld by the nearby Carnegie Mellon University, says ReSET director Dr. Land.

Joanna Doven, spokesperson for Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, says last year, the city’s Redd Up Program picked up more than 6,399 tons of debris, and that the Clean Pittsburgh Commission reports community stewards and their neighborhood volunteers picked up more than 180 tons of litter. With the national average of litter being 28 to 33 percent cigarette butts, by item rather than volume, we can only imagine just how large Pittsburgh’s butt problem truly is.

Kicking those butts into shape
Groups like the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership (PDP) are optimistic we can curb cigarette butt litter with more ash receptacles in more public spaces. In March 2008, PDP placed 21 plain white, sand-filled, 5-gallon buckets in high-smoking areas Downtown. The $3 buckets were accompanied by no fanfare or no marketing efforts, says Paul Hochendoner, manager of the Clean Team program, but “people knew what they were there for, and what to do with them,” he says.

The small success of that pilot led PDP to launch a new pilot program in June 2009 to control cigarette butt litter in the Golden Triangle. Partnering with Point Park University, the U.S. Steel Tower, Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and Jones Lange LaSalle real estate broker, PDP has placed 20 $125-urns around Downtown, targeting highly trafficked corners and bus stops. These urns attach to preexisting trashcans, and will be emptied daily by PDP’s Clean Team.

The Clean Team picked up 46,569 bags of trash in 2008, and 19,316 bags so far in 2009. PDP spends $600,000 annually cleaning Downtown, and believes that if people properly dispose of the cigarette butts, the organization could refocus many of its resources, and Downtown would be a safer, more beautiful place, says PDP president Michael Edwards.

PDP’s goals are supported by previous state efforts to reduce cigarette butt litter. In the summer of 2007, Pennsylvania Resources Council (PRC) assisted five Pennsylvania communities, including the South Side and Squirrel Hill, in localizing a nationwide pilot of the Cigarette Butt Litter Prevention program. By placing 81 ash receptacles at strategic “transition points”—in combination with pocket ashtray distribution, public signage, and reviews of communities’ litter ordinances—the pilot was able to reduce cigarette butt litter by 46 percent by the end of its test period.

On the individual level, smokers can take responsibility for their actions, too, suggests Dr. Land with the ReSET Center by looking into portable ashtrays or pocket butt holders, which can be ordered online.

The best way to reduce cigarette butt litter, though, is to reduce the number of smokers. About 70 recent of smokers report that they’d like to quit, but don’t know about available resources, says Dr. Land. His advice? Those seeking support can start by calling 1-800-QuitNow to talk to a counselor who can guide them through the process.

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Caption (center photograph): David Dzomback at CMU

Photographs copyright Brian Cohen

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