Wonky Wednesday: Plastic Butts in the Bay
Plastic bags and Styrofoam aren’t the only plastics polluting the Bay. Cigarette butts, the most common litter item collected during beach cleanups in the US, pose a very serious threat to water quality and wildlife.
I know what you’re thinking – I thought we were talking about plastics. Cigarettes, in fact, contain plastic. The filter is made from a material called cellulose acetate, which, like other plastics, does not break down in the environment. Every time someone flicks a cigarette into the street, they’re contributing to the growing levels of plastic trash that are suffocating our wetlands and threatening wildlife in the Bay.
So how bad is the problem of cigarette litter? There are many ways to answer this question. One part of the problem is the cost – the cost to cities of cleaning up all those discarded cigarettes. They’re so small, you’re thinking, how much could it possibly cost? The City of San Francisco spends over $7 million annually to clean up cigarette butts around the city. That cost does not include all the other trash the city has to clean up, including plastic bags, Styrofoam, food wrappers, and plastic bottles.
We can also measure the size of the problem by looking at how many butts are being littered. The Ocean Conservancy reports that almost two million cigarette butts were collected by volunteers around the world on International Coastal Cleanup Day in September 2011. According to Cigarette Butt Pollution Project, smoking-related litter comprises almost 40 percent of all the litter collected from beaches, rivers, and streams in the US.
We also need to take into account the impact of cigarette litter on wildlife. Not only can wildlife consume cigarette filters and litter (which eventually starves them), but cigarette butts just floating in the water can poison fish. A study done by researchers at San DiegoStateUniversityfound that a single cigarette in a liter of water can kill half of the fish living in that water. Think about how many fish in the Bay are at risk from tobacco poisoning.
These serious risks make an even stronger case for doing everything we can to prevent all plastic pollution – including cigarette litter – in the Bay. Click here to learn more Bay pollution facts.
- Allison Chan, Policy Associate