Litter and Lungs: The Many Ways Cigarettes Are Impacting You

Photo by: Lindsay Bernsen
Photo by: Lindsay Bernsen

Save the Bay’s most recent pollution prevention initiative, the Butt Free Bay Campaign, is fighting the flow of toxic, plastic cigarette butts into the San Francisco Bay. We are currently calling on Bay Area cities and counties to pass outdoor smoking bans to stop the constant flow of this poison trash at the source, and protect the Bay from second hand smoke. El Cerrito responded to the call in October 2014 and adopted the Smoking Pollution Protection Ordinance. As of this year, El Cerrito law prohibits smoking in parks, recreation areas, trails, city property, public sidewalks, and commercial areas!

El Cerrito’s progress has not just been noticed by Save the Bay. The American Lung Association recently released their 2015 “State of Tobacco Control” grades for all California communities, and El Cerrito’s grade changed from an F to an A since last year’s report. The American Lung Association grades cities based on several categories, including smoke-free outdoor air, smoke-free housing, and reduced sales of tobacco products.  Save the Bay worked closely with the El Cerrito city council after last year’s grade report to educate city officials on the environmental impacts of cigarette butt litter in our Bay, and we couldn’t be more excited about their success.

In the 2015 year, we are hoping to see many more cities following in El Cerrito’s footsteps by adopting comprehensive ordinances that strongly restrict outdoor smoking. The American Lung Association report showed that a shocking 49 Bay Area communities still receive a failing grade for regulating smoking outdoors, which indicates cigarette litter and second hand smoke are an ongoing and concerning issue for the bay.

Save the Bay has chosen to focus strongly on this litter item after our success with plastic bags and Styrofoam food ware because cigarette butts are consistently the top litter item collected on our shores every coastal cleanup day. The filter top, although fibrous, is actually made of plastic, meaning that it does not biodegrade and can linger in our oceans for centuries. Finally, cigarettes also leach toxins and heavy metals into the water, threatening our water quality and wildlife.

Outdoor smoking is a major concern for Save the Bay because there is a 65% littering rate for cigarette butts, and an estimated 3 billion cigarette butts are washed into the Bay each year. In San Mateo, which received a D grade by the American Lung Association overall, over 500 cigarettes were collected by Save the Bay at one bus stop alone. Littered cigarettes cost millions in cleanup for our cities, with San Francisco estimating it spends 6 million dollars annually on cigarette clean up alone, while much of this trash is still flowing into our waterways, and eventually the Bay.

Cigarette butts pollute our waterways, while second hand smoke continues to threaten public health. While the environmental impacts of cigarettes are relatively recent concerns, the impacts of second hand smoke are well known, but discussed less and less often. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention released their 2015 report on second hand smoke, revealing the terrifying, and often ignored, truth that millions of non-smokers are exposed to the dangers of cigarette smoke. Low income and minority communities have higher second hand smoke exposure, with 43% of nonsmokers below the poverty line exposed to second hand smoke. Among African Americans, 50% percent of adult non-smokers, and a shocking 70% of children are exposed to toxic second hand smoke each year. Overall, 40% of children nationwide are impacted by cigarette smoke. The Bay Area has some of the highest rates of asthma in kids, with cigarette smoke known to be a major asthma trigger. In Alameda county, the hospitalization rate of children with asthma is twice the state average, and hospitalization rate in West Oakland is five times the average.

Save the Bay is hoping to see more Bay Area cities create stronger policies based on the American Lung Association grades, and we look forward to continuing our work with local governments to educate officials and the public on the dangers of toxic cigarette waste. We need to stop this pollution at the source to keep our air and waters clean. Sign our petition calling on your city to pass an outdoor smoking ban to protect both the Bay, and the health of our children.

Cigarette Butts: An Emerging Environmental Justice Concern

Toxic, plastic cigarette butts disproportionately impact low income and communities of color.
Toxic, plastic cigarette butts disproportionately impact low income areas and communities of color. Photo: Jessica Watkins DeWinter

Tobacco use in low-income communities has long been a social justice issue, but it should also be an environmental justice concern when we consider the disproportionate impacts of cigarette butt litter on low-income communities and communities of color.  Indisputably, tobacco waste is a widespread problem in the Bay Area. Over 3 billion cigarette butts are littered here each year. Countless numbers wash into storm drains, flow into creeks, and enter the Bay, where they threaten wildlife and spoil water quality. Cigarette butts are toxic, plastic trash that creates blight on our city streets and in our natural recreation areas. But, just as the plague of tobacco addiction affects some communities more than others, so does the plague of tobacco litter.

It’s a well-known fact that smoking is strongly correlated with lower education and income levels. After the release of the first Surgeon General’s report on smoking in 1964, the profile of the American smoker shifted from being mostly wealthy to low- income. People below the poverty line are now more than 60% more likely to smoke than those at or above. In Alameda County, smoking and tobacco related death rates have dropped remarkably over the past 20 years, but these reductions haven’t been spread evenly across communities. The African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council (AATCLC), based in Oakland, has launched a nationwide campaign to ban menthol cigarettes, as they are primarily marketed to youth and African Americans. Anti-smoking advocates should contemplate environmental justice implications as well; tobacco use issues transcend the realm of public health as we consider the uneven distribution of tobacco litter.

Low-income communities and communities of color are forced to live in areas with blight resulting from large quantities of trash, including tobacco litter. Research has shown that cigarette butt litter is found in large quantities surrounding liquor and convenience stores in urban areas – stores which are more prevalent in low-income communities.  In Alameda County and San Francisco, more than 40% of stores in low-income communities sell tobacco. As of 2009, in District 6 of San Francisco (the district with the lowest median household income), there were 270 tobacco sales permits, almost three times the average number of permits per district. This district includes the Tenderloin, an area of San Francisco housing a large Vietnamese population. In 2011, in order to demonstrate the severity of the local tobacco litter problem in their neighborhood, teens at the Vietnamese Youth Development Center collected cigarette butt litter. In just over two hours, they found more than 2,000 cigarette butts in the area surrounding the center, which includes several schools, parks, and youth-serving agencies.

With our Butt Free Bay campaign, Save The Bay seeks to stop this litter at the source; we encourage cities to adopt and enforce outdoor smoking ordinances to prevent cigarette butts from entering storm drains and creeks. With this undertaking, we’re asking Bay Area cities to consider the environmental consequences of smoking in addition to its impacts on public health – for all communities. By working together, we can create a clean living space and a healthy San Francisco Bay for all seven million Bay Area residents.

Top 5 Posts of 2013

As the blog editor for Save The Bay, I am continually interested in learning which stories most excite readers and inspire them to share with their friends. In 2013, readers loved positive stories about wildlife recovery, anything about Oakland (yay Oakland!), inspiring stories about Bay recovery, fascinating Bay history tales, and even stories about innovative policy solutions to pollution problems. Though these topics are incredibly varied,  one consistent theme runs through all of them:  a sense that a healthier Bay and healthier environment is always possible. As the New Year begins with this incredible sense of hope, and we look back on last year’s accomplishments and forward to next year’s, I’m pleased to share our most popular blog posts from 2013:

Sailing on SF Bay
Photo by Rick Lewis.

River Otter Sighting a Sign of Lake Merritt’s Recovery
“Keep Oakland Fresh” bumper stickers. “Great Lakes” T-shirts, comparing the outlines of Mono Lake, Lake Tahoe and Lake Merritt. Vintage color postcards showing flocks of birds wading in clear blue waters and flying above beautiful green hills. Nearly every candidate who runs for City Council in Oakland has a picture of themselves with Lake Merritt as the backdrop. There’s a reason why: Oaklanders love Lake Merritt.

We received a surprising indication that recent restoration work is making a difference. For the first time in living memory, a river otter was spotted on a dock along the lake’s shoreline. Read more…

After 143 years, Oakland’s Lake Merritt Reunites with the Bay
A gem at the heart of Oakland, Lake Merritt has been many things – the nation’s first wildlife refuge, beloved waterway, sewage-filled cesspool, and even the rumored home to a lake monster. There’s one thing that Lake Merritt has never been, however – and that’s a lake.

What we now call Lake Merritt has for most of the past ten thousand years been a tidal lagoon where the waters of several East Bay creeks met the brackish tides of the Bay. Read more…

Are Butts the New Bottles? NY Proposes Cigarette Butt Redemption Program
New York Assemblymember Michael DenDekker is not one to wait around for easy answers. As a retired NYC Sanitation Worker, DenDekker knows firsthand the scale of America’s tobacco litter problem. And, as a politician, he knows firsthand the impact this litter has on our economy. His solution? Create a redemption program (similar to the current CRV for bottles and cans) to incentivize smokers to properly dispose of their butts. Read more…

Explore the Newly-Opened Trail at Bair Island
Save The Bay was thrilled to join the Redwood City community in a celebration of an important milestone in the nearly-completed restoration of Bair Island. The Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge celebrated the opening of a new pedestrian bridge, and the first segment of trails accessible to the public since restoration work began in 2007. Read more…

Trash Dumps and the Hidden History of the Bay Shoreline
After the Gold Rush, a full one-third of the San Francisco Bay was diked off or filled in for development. Over three dozen trash dumps (both official and unofficial) lined the Bay shoreline. The public had access to less than six miles of shoreline, but far from being the recreational haven that the Bay Trail is today, the old shoreline greeted visitors with views of a struggling Bay choked with raw sewage and industrial pollution. Read more and view the interactive map…

Weekly Roundup: December 20, 2013

Check out this week’s Weekly Roundup for breaking news affecting San Francisco Bay

Sacramento Bee 12/14/13
SF Bay River Otter Sightings Suggest Comeback
Earlier this year, a river otter named Sutro Sam became the first of the whiskered critters to be seen in San Francisco for decades.
The juvenile male otter drew crowds to a brackish pool on a seaside cliff where he swam and ate for a few days, thrilling onlookers before disappearing quietly.
In all, researchers have received 600 reported sightings throughout the San Francisco Bay region over the past two years in the first population study of the weasel-like creatures ever done here. Most of the sightings have been confirmed through photos and video taken by bystanders in an area where the species was nearly wiped out after decades of of hunting, development and pollution.
Read more>>


Oakland Local 12/12/13
The New Bay Bridge Bike Path: Here’s where to get on in Oaktown and Emeryville
Since its grand opening two weeks ago, the Alexander Zuckermann Bike Path has both enthralled and eluded many visitors. The photos and videos are stunning, but how exactly does one get there? I set out from Lake Merritt on my bike to find out.
Read more>>

SF Gate 12/13/13
Purchase of Skagg’s Island Farm to Restore SF Bay Marshland
By any measure, it’s a good thing when 1,092 acres along San Francisco Bay become permanently protected open space.
This is even better: Friday’s sale of an oat farm near Highway 37 to the Sonoma Land Trust will allow 4,400 acres of dry land to be restored to a functioning marsh, just like it was before humans put up dikes and walled out San Francisco Bay.
Read more>>

SF Gate 12/15/13
Bird Count in Oakland Shows Surprisingly Low Tally 
The annual Audubon bird count in Oakland was a breeze this year: There were hardly any birds to count.
“Normally we’d see thousands of scaup and bufflehead and canvasback. This year it’s staggering – we’ve hardly seen any,” said Ruth Tobey, one of more than 200 volunteers who scoured the East Bay on Sunday with binoculars and clipboards, counting birds.
Read more>>

CBS Bay Area 12/12/13
Appeals Court Upholds San Francisco’s Plastic Bag Ban
A state appeals court has upheld a San Francisco law banning the use of non-compostable plastic bags at checkout stands in retail stores and grocery markets.
The 2012 law, an expansion of an earlier measure, prohibits most single-use plastic checkout bags and requires stores to charge 10 cents for paper or compostable plastic bags.
The ordinance was upheld Tuesday by a three-judge panel of the state Court of Appeal in San Francisco. The court ruled on a challenge by the Los-Angeles-based Save the Plastic Bag Coalition, a manufacturers’ association that has been battling plastic bag laws around the state.
Read more>>

Bay Nature 12/13/13
Capturing King Tides Through Citizen Science
You’re driving through Mill Valley along Highway 102, the sky is blue, the drought persists, and it’s still not raining—yet, the water laps at your tires and the asphalt road resembles a shallow creek. It’s the winter king tides in action and that, organizers at the California King Tides Initiative say, is what the future looks like.
King tides are extreme, high tide events that occur biannually, normally around the summer and winter solstices, when the gravitational pull of the sun and moon are in alignment. While the tides are not affected by climate change, they act as an indicator of the way in which sea level rise will affect coastal communities. Hayley Zamel, an organizing partner for the California King Tides Initiative, said winter king tides, particularly when paired with a storm—as was the case in Pacifica last year—offer a realistic look into the climate-changed future.
Read more>>

SF Gate 12/20/13
NYC Expands Smoking Ban to Include E-Cigarettes
Years after being exiled to New York City’s sidewalks by a ban on smoking in indoor public places, some smokers relished electronic cigarettes as a way to come in from the cold. Now they’re down to their last few puffs after the City Council voted 43-8 Thursday to expand the ban to include the devices. Mayor Michael Bloomberg is expected to sign the measure before leaving office in a few days. The ban would take effect in four months.
Read more>>

Quit smoking, for yourself AND the Bay

Cigarette butts are toxic, plastic litter that threaten wildlife and impact water quality.
Cigarette butts are toxic, plastic litter that threaten wildlife and impact water quality.

Today is the annual Great American Smokeout – a great event encouraging smokers to put the pack away, at least for a day. We all know that cigarettes harm human health – smoking increases your risk of cancer and other smoking related illnesses. Notwithstanding the health detriments, have you ever thought about the environmental impacts of cigarettes?

A person could be smoking on the sidewalk in many of our great neighborhoods around the Bay.  Whilst enjoying the beautiful Bay Area they flick their spent cigarette butt onto the sidewalk. It travels through the winding stormwater system and eventually deposits a piece of toxic plastic litter into our beautiful Bay.  Some cities around the Bay have already begun to address the issue of cigarette butt trash.

You may wonder how much impact such a small piece of trash can cause. Well, they are small. But with an estimated 3 billion cigarette butts littered in the Bay Area every year, a little bit goes a long way. In fact that number of butts is enough to span the Golden Gate Bridge 9,284 times. And contrary to popular belief, they won’t break down quickly. Cigarette butts are actually made of plastic, which will never biodegrade. Despite San Francisco spending $6 million in 2009 just to clean up butts, it is impossible to remove them all from our Bay.

So, you see, smoking is more than a public health issue. Cigarette litter severely impacts environmental health and Save The Bay is working to prevent cigarette butts polluting our Bay. To learn more about this toxic plastic trash check out our new infographic. Whilst you’re there share it with your networks and help spread the word.