One of the most widespread pollutants of the Bay is something that gets scant notice from passers-by, but remains surprisingly, and disturbingly, widespread: cigarette butts are polluting the Bay by the tens of thousands.
On a fine spring morning this May, a Save The Bay team fanned out across San Mateo to do a survey of just how many cigarette butts get tossed as litter. Why San Mateo? That’s because the San Mateo City Council enacted an ordinance that went into effect Nov. 15, 2015. We wanted to see how that ordinance is playing out on the streets. This was a follow-up to a survey done in 2014.
In a daylong expedition, the team surveyed shopping centers, parks, bus stops and city sidewalks. The team gingerly plucked cigarette butts with gloved hands and deposited them in collections bags, maintaining a tally as we went along. Curious citizens asked what the heck we were doing, giving us a chance to explain about the hazards of cigarette butts. Our efforts were greeted with supportive comments, whether from shoppers or street people.
We picked up a grand total of 3,056 butts from 15 sites. That’s compared with 2,635 found in survey Save The Bay did at the same sites in 2014.
The results show there’s still a long way to go in the battle against the butts. Here’s what we found as Ethan Tucker, policy associate with Save the Bay, reported in this summary:
“Overall, at the sites we surveyed in San Mateo we found a slight but substantial increase in cigarette litter. Though the city passed a smoking ordinance in 2015 that prohibits smoking at parks and recreation areas, on city sidewalks, and at bus stops it is clear that the ban has not been implemented effectively. We expected to see a reduction in the amount of cigarette litter found at these sites since the ban has been in place for over a year. However, 12 of the 15 sites that we looked at had more cigarette litter in 2016 than they had in 2014, additionally, we noticed that even though a smoking ban is now in place at most of the sites we surveyed, an ordinary passerby would have no way of knowing that smoking is not permitted since most of these areas are without any signage.”
UPDATE 4/19/2016: The East Bay Regional Parks District’s Board of Directors finally adopted a smoking ban on Tuesday, April 19. We have been advocating for a comprehensive ban on smoking in the parks since 2014 when our volunteers cleaned a staggering number of cigarette butts from the Martinez Regional Shoreline. While the policy the parks district adopted will prohibit smoking in most areas of the parks, it includes an exemption that will allow smoking to continue at campsites. The Board of Directors included this exemption despite being called upon to adopt a complete ban by a coalition of environmental and public health organizations, including the Alameda Tobacco Control Program and the Alameda County Tobacco Prevention Coalition, and over 300 Save The Bay activists. The board has agreed to reconsider the exemption next year and indicated they may place cigarette disposal receptacles in campgrounds to discourage littering. Save The Bay will continue to advocate for a comprehensive policy that keeps toxic tobacco litter out of our parks and out of the creeks that flow to our Bay until smoking is prohibited in all areas of the parks district.
In mid-April, the Board of Directors of the East Bay Regional Parks District will vote on an ordinance to ban smoking in all 120,536 acres of the 65 parks in their jurisdiction. This long overdue policy is an important step toward reducing the flow of toxic, plastic cigarette butts into the Bay.
It would seem like a no-brainer to keep cigarettes, with their associated health impacts and wild fire danger, out of parks where people go to seek out health and enjoy nature. Unfortunately, the East Bay Regional Parks has not yet banned smoking even though many cities around the Bay have decided to keep cigarette smoke and cigarette litter out of their recreation areas and parks.
In addition to the fire hazard posed by discarded cigarettes, toxic butts, and littered cartons pollute our creeks and Bay, and second-hand smoke poses unnecessary health hazards to parks visitors. Cigarette butts are a pernicious problem in our open spaces and ordinances like the one the East Bay Parks will consider are one of our best tools for fighting them.
A plastic wolf in the white fuzz of sheep’s clothing
Cigarette butts are not biodegradable. The ubiquitous cigarette filter is made from cellulose acetate – a type of plastic similar to Rayon – and will persist in the environment indefinitely. These plastic fibers were added to cigarettes in the Mad Men era when tobacco companies turned to ever more elaborate measures to fool the public into thinking their products were safe. In fact, these “filters” do nothing to protect smokers from harmful chemicals, but they have remained on the ends of cigarettes, and in our creeks and bay, ever since.
Save The Bay estimates that over 3 billion of these highly toxic buttsare littered in the Bay Area each year, threatening water quality and wildlife in the Bay. Once in the creeks, butts leach toxic chemicals including acetic acid, chromium, and arsenic into the water. This soup of chemicals is deadly to fish and marine life even at low concentrations.
The most horrible part of the danger cigarette litter poses to our environment is that people do not seem to think of cigarette butts as trash when they litter them. As a result, cigarette butts have been the most commonly found trash on Coastal Cleanup day for the past 20 years.
The scale of the trash problem posed by cigarette butts requires us to change our thinking about smoking. If we de-normalize smoking in public places and call attention to the fact that smoking produces litter, we can begin to change behavior and chip away at the litter problem.
The East Bay Regional Parks District’s parks would not be the first smoke-free parks in the region. Nearly all of the municipalities that border East Bay Regional Parks already have ordinances that restrict smoking in parks and recreation areas. These bans are a simple and effective way to start changing attitudes towards smoking and cigarette litter. A clear and comprehensive ban on smoking in our regional parks will create regional cohesion and further de-normalize outdoor smoking and its harmful effects on the environment.
In order to have an impact, this ordinance needs to be implemented in such a way that it causes people to think twice before smoking in the parks and causes them to think about where their cigarette butts are going. This means clear signage in parking lots, campsites and at trail heads. Additionally, it will require parks staff to work to educate park visitors about the rule, and about the harmful impacts of tobacco litter on the environment. It also means that conscientious park visitors will need to educate others about the rule so people feel a social responsibility to avoid smoking in the parks. The more people stop to think, the more behavior will change and the cleaner our creeks and Bay will be.
The East Bay Regional Parks should be completely smoke-free
This policy will have enormous benefits to the ecosystems within the parks as well as the people who visit and use them, and it makes sense to have policies that protect public and environmental health in areas set aside to respect nature and enjoy the outdoors in a healthy way. In order to make a strong case to the Board of Directors, we have partnered with other environmental advocates and advocates from the public health community, including the American Lung Association, Clean Water Action, and the Alameda County Tobacco Control Coalition.
Last Thursday, we and many other advocates for smoke-free parks went to the EBRP Board’s Operations Committee meeting. The three-member committee heard testimony from environmental and public health advocates calling to prohibit smoking in all parts of our regional parks to prevent exposure to second-hand smoke and cigarette butt litter. They also received a letter signed by half a dozen environmental and public health organizations in addition to separate letters written by the American Lung Association, the City of Berkeley, and the Watershed Project urging them to ban smoking in the parks with no exceptions. On top of all that, 271 Save The Bay supporters sent messages to the committee calling to protect the health of our parks.
The committee voted to ban smoking in all areas of the parks with one major exception: The ordinance will continue to allow smoking at campsites. Their logic is that campsites are already smoky from campfires and so there is no additionally public health threat from tobacco. However, this policy ignores the litter smokers leave behind.
We still have an opportunity to fight for a stronger ordinance. As the full board vote approaches in April, we will need your help to convince the board to adopt the strongest policy possible. Not only do we need a strong ordinance on the books, but we need to see less litter in our parks and in the Bay. Stay tuned for opportunities to make your voice heard.
Although they are marketed as “eco-friendly” products, e-cigarettes are being increasingly scrutinized because their production, usage, and disposal pose significant threats to the environment.
One of the biggest concerns is the effect that e-cigarettes can have on indoor air quality. Recent studies examining the effects of e-cig vapors on surrounding air quality conclude that there is a significant increase of harmful particles in the air. The vapor also releases carcinogens into the surrounding area. As e-cigarettes gain popularity, the effects of “secondhand vaping” on the environment are becoming harder to ignore.
Yet another concern regarding e-cigarettes is their disposal. E-cigarettes are battery-operated products that contain plastic cartridges which are filled with liquid nicotine. Even after they have been disposed, high concentrations of metals (such as lead) continue to leach out of the devices. Furthermore, residual nicotine left in the cartridge can be toxic to the environment and anyone who comes into contact with it.
Even though more research needs to be done to understand the full impact of e-cigarettes on the environment, initial studies have already proven that these devices are not as environmentally-friendly as vendors may claim.
– Krishna Bommakanti, Berkeley Tobacco Prevention Program
Krishna coordinates the Tobacco Prevention Program’s Berkeley Youth Tobacco Educators Program, which hosts weekly meetings with Berkeley middle and high school students to discuss a wide range of tobacco-related topics. Krishna develops the curriculum for BYTE meetings and works with BYTE interns to create community outreach events geared toward Berkeley’s youth.
Thank you so much to everyone who came out to participate in our Earth Day Cigarette Butt Cleanup in El Cerrito last month! The event was a huge success, and the city was so grateful for the help you all provided. We had over 30 people join us on April 18, including EarthTeam, an organization of local students that has been tracking and working to reduce litter in the Bay Area as well. Check out their interactive Zero Litter map here!
With our volunteers, we were able to clean and survey four main areas of the city to analyze where cigarette debris is accumulating. The city of El Cerrito adopted an outdoor smoking ordinance at the beginning of this year, and we were interested in surveying the downtown area of El Cerrito to help the city monitor its progress in reducing cigarette litter and reducing exposure to second hand smoke. In under 3 hours, our volunteers were able to collect a total of 7,873 cigarettes, and the city as a whole collected a total of 12,236 cigarettes!
Some of the areas we found with the greatest number of cigarettes included the BART station area on nearby sidewalks and the Ohlone Greenway, as well as bus stops near shopping centers, bars on San Pablo avenue, and a Police and Fire station. We found almost 900 cigarettes at the BART station alone.
El Cerrito’s outdoor smoking ordinance is a huge step toward reducing the city’s cigarette litter and keeping local waterways clean of this toxic trash, but the ordinance requires a stronger approach to compliance and enforcement. Although the ordinance is relatively new, as it went into effect in January, the city has made some efforts to inform the public about the new legislation. Mailers have been sent to citizens and signs were posted on San Pablo Avenue, but the amount of cigarette litter present suggests that many people are unaware of the new ordinance.
In order for the ordinance to have the intended effects of reducing toxic litter and protecting the public from the detrimental effects of secondhand smoke, stronger compliance and enforcement methods need to be implemented, especially in hot spot areas for cigarette butts. Visible signage in polluted areas is a good first step – we did not see any “no smoking” signs at bus stops along San Pablo Ave., nor anywhere along the Ohlone Greenway. The BART station was another striking hot spot – the City of El Cerrito should work with BART to drastically reduce the flow of cigarette butts from the BART station and parking lot into local waterways and storm drains. Working with businesses is also necessary, to help them understand the new restrictions and to explore ways that they can be partners in establishing smoke free commercial areas.
El Cerrito’s ordinance has the potential to create a healthier community and protect local waterways, but the amount of cigarette litter we collected shows that outdoor smoking is continuing at an alarming rate, threatening the health of El Cerrito residents and the Bay. We urge the city to prioritize the outreach and enforcement strategies necessary to ensure the successful implementation of this ordinance.
Last month, the East Bay Express published an enlightening and comprehensive article summarizing the impact tobacco waste has on the Bay Area’s residents and wildlife. A little over a year ago, Save the Bay launched the Butt Free Bay campaign to reduce cigarette butt pollution in the Bay. Allison Chan, Save The Bay’s Clean Bay Campaign Manager, states in the article “Cigarette butts are not like every other type of litter. They are toxic.” This short and sweet statement speaks volumes about just how bad tobacco and its byproducts are.
As the article notes, “They [Save the Bay] face an uphill fight. The plastic bag industry spent millions on its failed effort to defeat a state ban, and Big Tobacco can be expected to unleash an even larger torrent of money to combat those who would limit its profits.” That’s why Save The Bay will keep working to enact local outdoor smoking ordinances, as well as educate local residents about the importance of where we put our butts (no pun intended).