Saturday, June 12, 2010

Smokers Are Different - How About a Deposit on Butts?

Background:  I once picked up trash for a couple of hours downtown with a group.  By far the most numerous item that we picked up was cigarette butts.  Nothing came close.  

 So, today I was coming home from Costco - haven't figured out how to carry a Costco load on the bike yet - and I was stopped at Airport Heights behind this car.  Then she pushed a cigarette out the window.  She didn't text me first so I don't have it on video.  But  below, if you look carefully you can see the butt beside the car.

She had moved up a little bit by this time.

A little larger.  

So on the way home I debated whether it was ok to post her license plate.  Well, sure, it's legal, but is it the right thing to do?  I learned before that plates aren't up on the web and that you can't look them up without a legal reason.  And I messed up one number.  So I was pretty comfortable with it.  She'll know.  And her friends and neighbors will know.  (That is if any of them ever see this post which is also highly unlikely.) 

And, of course, I checked on the web.  I found thesmokingsection, a pro-smoking website, that says it's ok to criticize smokers who litter:
This is a cultural phenomenon. It was once acceptable to throw butts on the ground under the theory they would degenerate quickly. While debatable in the old days, that notion should have gone out as quickly as filters came in. Unfortunately it didn't. Considerate smokers don't litter. Those who do deserve criticism as much as any other litterer.
I also looked to see if others had noticed that so much of the litter around is cigarette butts. 

Cigarettelitter an anti-cigarette litter site, says yes!
"It is estimated that 40% of the litter in the Borough is smoking related, be it wrappers, cartons or cigarette ends."
-- [Gedling Borough Council, England]
-- "Each year more than 1 billion pieces of litter will accumulate on Texas highways. Of those, 13 percent are cigarette butts. That means 130 million butts will be tossed out in Texas alone this year."
--Texas Department of Transportation
 Whyquit.com explains what these butts do to the environment:
Are cigarette butts litter?  Absolutely!  But unlike paper products they're not biodegradable.  Nearly all cigarette filters are composed of a bundle of 12,000 plastic-like cellulose acetate fibers. Cellulose acetate is photodegradable but not bio-degradable. It can take years, in some cases up to fifteen, for ultraviolet light to cause fibers to decay into a plastic powder that can't be seen.  As they do their deadly cargo is released.
The nicotine trapped inside 200 used filters is likely sufficient to kill a 160 pound adult human - 50 to 60 milligrams.  Imagine a month without rain followed by a brief thunderstorm that washes 500,000 nicotine laden canoes - enough to kill 2,500 humans - into area creeks and streams.  Aquatic life at the bottom of the food chain can pay a deadly price. But so can fish who mistake butts for food or birds who use them for nesting material.  Nicotine isn't the only villain as trapped tars and toxic gases leach into waterways too.

And they estimate there's a lot of them out there.
What we do know is that worldwide 5.6 trillion filtered cigarettes are smoked annually, with an estimated 1.7 billion pounds of cigarette butt litter. Here in the U.S., more than 1.35 trillion cigarettes were manufactured in 2007, of which 360 billion were smoked here. Look closely at the ground at any intersection.  They're everywhere!

Even Phillip Morris says it's a BIG problem:

We recognize that cigarette butt litter is a significant contributor to litter in our environment. As the leading manufacturer and marketer of cigarettes in the United States, we are helping reduce cigarette butt litter.
Based on the results of Ocean Conservancy's 2009 Annual International Coastal Cleanup, more cigarette butts were collected than any other type of litter and cigarette butts accounted for almost one-third of all items collected.

So why do cigarette smokers do this?  Well, first, let's assume a good portion of cigarette smokers don't.  But what about the ones that do?

After vainly wandering through the internet, I finally got to a source I'd seen referenced by others over and over again - Keep America Beautiful (KAB.)  They seem to be the main anti-litter organization.  Here's what their website says:

Why do people litter?  Here’s what KAB’s 2009 Littering Behavior in America research found:
  • Personal choice.  Individual behavior—or choosing to litter—means litter on the ground.  Nearly one in five, or 17% of all disposals observed in public spaces were littering, while 83% disposed of litter properly.  And 81% of littering was intentional, e.g., flicking, flinging, or dropping.  On the other hand, individuals who hold the belief that littering is wrong, and consequently feel a personal obligation not to litter, are less likely to do so. 
  • Litter begets litter.  Individuals are much more likely to litter into a littered environment.  And once there, it attracts more litter.  By contrast, a clean community discourages littering and improves overall community quality of life.  Availability and proximity to trash and recycling receptacles also impact whether someone chooses to litter. 
  • It’s “not my responsibility”.  Some people feel no sense of ownership for parks, walkways, beaches, and other public spaces. They believe someone else will pick up after them; that it’s not their responsibility. 

They choose to do so.  Not real helpful. I still don't know what causes that 17% to litter.  "It's not my responsibility" starts to get to it.  It's what's in their head.  Some people have no social conscious at all.  Wikipedia says that people with anti-social personality disorder make up about 4% (3% male; 1% female) of the population.  
[Anti-social personality disorder] is characterized by at least 3 of the following:
  1. Callous unconcern for the feelings of others and lack of the capacity for empathy.
  2. Gross and persistent attitude of irresponsibility and disregard for social norms, rules, and obligations.
  3. Incapacity to maintain enduring relationships.
  4. Very low tolerance to frustration and a low threshold for discharge of aggression, including violence.
  5. Incapacity to experience guilt and to profit from experience, particularly punishment.
  6. Markedly prone to blame others or to offer plausible rationalizations for the behavior bringing the subject into conflict.
  7. Persistent irritability.

These people definitely aren't going to change.  So that leaves about 13% to explain.

Do smokers have characteristics that would make them more likely to litter?  They comprise about 20% of the population.   The Massachusetts Department of Public Health Department   says about their state's smokers:
Smoking rates are highest among low socio-economic groups, people with no health insurance, people with disabilities, and the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) population.
The rate for the public overall in Massachusetts was below the national average - only 16% - and people without health insurance were more than twice as likely to smoke!  Presumably these are people who do not get health insurance through work and are not on the mandatory state health plan for people otherwise not covered. 

So smokers overall are less educated, have less money, and less access to medical care than the population in general.  And presumably they're likely to be people who aren't coping too well in modern society to start with.  The fact that they smoke despite that stats that say how unhealthy it is means they see the world differently than most others. 

The key issue seems to be inside people's heads.  The lady in the car in front of me presumably had an ashtray in her car, but chose to throw the butt out the window.  This leads me to my solution for most social problems - parenting education.  Catching people before they become parents and perhaps helping the young learn to plan to have kids when they are most prepared to raise them well.   And working with people who are pregnant so that they understand ways to raise kids in ways that increase their likelihood to cope well with society.  Changing adults just doesn't work in most cases unless they want to be changed.

There was one more option I found that may holds some promise:

This is a personal butt holder. We saw one of these being used by a Japanese traveler in Laos. He carried it in his pocket. But as I said, the lady in the car in front of me had an ashtray in her car, so just having one of these, even if cigarette peddlars gave them out free (the ad above is for 100, so it would be $3 a piece and if you buy 1000 it was $1.60 each) it probably wouldn't make much difference.

Unless...we required a deposit on butts like some places do on bottles. In fact, a homeless person could get get rich picking up butts given that there are so many of them. It works for other kinds of litter and everything I've read says that cigarette butts are the most frequent piece of litter.

Well, I haven't seen any better suggestions.  

[There's lots more to be said here.  One very different way of understanding the mind set of smokers - and we shouldn't lump them all together because they clearly smoke for different reasons - is to read what smokers say about why they smoke.  Here's a piece on a cigar-lovers' site that talks about the joys of academics who smoke cigars.  Some of it is clearly an identity issue and some of it is a bonding issue.]


  1. Tossing butts is a HUGE pet peeve of mine (and I used to be a smoker, too). Whenever I see some jerk toss a butt out their car window at a stoplight, I am SOOOOO tempted to walk over, pick it up, and toss it back in at them, saying politely, "Excuse me, you dropped this".

  2. In Europe there are ashtrays AND trash receptacles EVERYWHERE. Because they don't pretend that citizens don't smoke. It's not a character flaw like it is here in the U.S.
    They don't CARE if you smoke, they just don't want people throwing stuff on the ground. And they don't.

    A deposit on butts. Good idea. But wait, there already is. Tobacco taxes are the single-largest source of independent revenue for the Municipality.

    You'd think it would be booze, right, our higher and lovelier socioeconomic demographic drink a lot of high-end expensive booze that we could tax the crap out of!
    But no. They wouldn't stand for that.

    Like property owners, tobacco purchasers are DIRECTLY contributing to city coffers. Next time you see a cop go by, or your street gets plowed, or your school gets some City funding - thank a smoker.
    I do think we should be taxing snack 'food' - candy, Doritos, Twinkies and all sodas. Now there's some tremendous revenue and a REAL societal value. This crap contributes to major widespread health problems costing this country billions, across all socioeconomic groups, all ages, and everywhere.

    My pet peeve is the cans and bottles being thrown out the window or blowing out of a truckbed. Also, you all must have noticed how EVERY handicapped parking spot is being used these days, particularly at Costco and Starbucks. But I don't see anyone in those vehicles having trouble walking or in wheelchairs. They must be using a friend's permit for personal cool.
    And do you think, maybe, all you folks that have gym memberships and work out Pilates and do physical fitness 'boot camps' could just walk your shopping cart a few yards to the corral in the parking lot? Just a li'l tiny courtesy...consider it free exercise. "Excuse me, you put your cart behind my car and you're parked in handicapped parking. Do you mind?" Politely.

    What a fine example of ordinary common courtesy, social conscience and stewardship to set for all the Anchorage children modeling your behaviour.

  3. i posted on this topic before, as well.
    it's one of those eternal issues... never any progress made, never even any acknowledgement of the problem.
    i noticed in washington state, since they got rid of smoking indoors at public places, an unintended consequence has been a lot more cigarette litter on the streets and sidewalks.

  4. PS. here's a bike you can use to carry a costco load.
    it's a bit expensive, but so is gas.

  5. Clark, when they moved smoking outdoors, they assumed that meant people quit. After all, the smokers by then should have all seen the public service messages pointing out what ugly, horrible people they were. So, they DIDN'T and WON'T put ashtrays and trash bins out. It's logical and linear.
    In Alaska, there is policy NOT to (and this is real), because an ashtray would encourage smoking, and they don't want to send that message.
    Of course it would. I'm sure the presence of a big old free-standing plastic jug for putting butts in would turn everyone into a smoker!

  6. In downtown Juneau, there are butt disposal containers everywhere there is a trash can, posted with a reminder that throwing butts on the street is littering, and the fine is $200.00(!). Since JPD has started writing $200 tickets, folks have started using the ashtrays. I notice a lot fewer butts on the street now.

    Since cars do have ashtrays, you'd think that smoking drivers would use them, especially when it hasn't rained for a while and the fire danger is high.

  7. "Take ugly butts home"

    The tobacco companies gave out little portable ashtrays. We (Eight Northern Indian Pueblos Council environment program) added our own note.

    I suspect someone could manufacture little ashtrays from an old cooler/heater bag and duct tape.

    Tweet miscreants to


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