Get the drift, cigarette litter is unattractive

Water Ways
Honolulu Star Bulletin (2/03/01)
By Ray Pendleton

Nearly every fall I give kudos in this column to the thousands of volunteers who join in Hawaii's "Get the Drift and Bag It" shoreline litter cleanup.

Without this major anti-litter campaign, organized by the University of Hawaii's Sea Grant Program, I'm sure our waterways and beaches would be substantially less attractive and considerably more polluted.

Along with the praise, I have usually included statistical results of those cleanups that clearly show the size and nature of the problem.

For instance, in 1999, the gross weight (pun intended) of the collected refuse was nearly 114 tons. And, as in every previous year, the most common item to be collected was the ever-present cigarette butt.

I mention this now because I recently discovered an Internet site completely devoted to "dramatically reducing cigarette litter across the United States."

Log on to:

Imagine what it would be like not to have drifts of cigarette butts along every curb, ready to wash into our waterways at the first rainfall. The thought is practically revolutionary for urban Honolulu or Waikiki.

If you browse its Web site, you will learn the organization believes most people who litter with cigarettes don't fully understand the consequences of their actions. But once they know the truth, they will be much more hesitant to unthinkingly flick their cigarettes on the street, sidewalk, stream, beach or ocean.

The site goes on to list a number of smokers' justifications for littering and the organization's answers to those justifications.

First, there is the belief that cigarette filters are biodegradable. Emphatically no, says CigaretteLitter.Org - at least not in the sense most people think of the word.

The acetate (plastic) filters can take many years to decompose, and meanwhile, they can be ingested by marine wildlife that mistake them for food. The worst danger, of course, is the extremely poisonous chemical nicotine concentrated in each filter.

"What am I supposed to do with them?" smokers ask, the organization says.

It lists several options for discarding cigarette butts, such as disposable pocket ash trays, metal mint or film containers, and especially automobile ash trays. It also notes that any trash can will do if the cigarette has been properly extinguished.

"It's harmless, it's just a small cigarette butt," smokers also rationalize.

Lots of little harmless things add up to a big harmful thing, the organization answers. Billions of cigarettes are littered every day, some causing fires, and all causing environmental degradation. Tossing out just one cigarette makes any smoker a part of the problem.

The organization says several universities have recently banned smoking on campus, not because of health issues, but because of litter issues. Penn State estimated its cost of picking up cigarette butts at $150,000 a year.

When it comes to litter enforcement, CigaretteLitter.Org notes that our police and other governmental agencies should do more. But it also points out that the best enforcement comes from non-confrontational communication from friends, coworkers and family.

Nevertheless, the organization advises that concerned citizens should write letters to their local government, law enforcement and fire safety officials requesting them to take a more active role in eliminating cigarette litter.

It also points out that local litter cleanup days, when an effort to count cigarette butts is used, can bring media attention to the issue and show litters that others find their actions inappropriate.

The next Get the Drift and Bag It day will be in September. See you there?

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