2,635 Pieces of Tiny Toxic Trash in San Mateo

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An empty pack of cigarettes and cigarette butts found near a creek in San Mateo

Growing up in the Bay Area, I never gave a second thought to cigarette butts. I definitely saw them on the ground, at festivals—everywhere really. They were just a part of the urban landscape. I never contemplated cigarette butts being a problem, because I’m not a cigarette smoker. Drug Free programs at school taught me about why the actual act of smoking cigarettes is bad. I even got to see and feel a real healthy lung compared to a lung belonging to a life-long smoker—believe me I’m scarred.

However, I never received the message about the toxicity of cigarette waste until now.  Something I didn’t know is the “cotton” filter we think helps reduce toxins from the cigarette is not actually cotton, but plastic (cellulose acetate)—nor does it work.  The plastic filters from butts do not biodegrade. Instead, they end up in storm drains that eventually flow into our waterways and bay.

Cigarette butts are the number one form of litter found on International Coastal Cleanup Day worldwide. Toxins from the cigarettes leach into the water, poisoning fish, birds, and other wildlife. According to the American Lung Association in California (ALA), adopting tobacco control laws in the Bay Area and other major cities can help reduce a significant amount of cigarette pollution in California. This is one of the reasons we targeted the City of San Mateo to conduct cigarette butt surveys. San Mateo has one of the lowest grades for outdoor smoking ordinances according to the ALA 2014 Tobacco Control Report.

Earlier this month, a team from Save the Bay took to the streets of San Mateo to collect cigarette butts.   We broke up into 3 pairs to survey 15 locations with the highest potential for smokers: recreational areas, sidewalks, bus stops, and shopping centers.

Allison Chan, Save the Bay’s Clean Bay Campaign manager, and I began our journey at the Borel Square shopping center.  We immediately sparked people’s curiosity by wearing gloves, masks, and skeptical faces while looking at the ground. “Did you guys lose something?” a man asked as he entered 24 Hour Fitness. “No, we are doing a survey for cigarette butts,” I said. “Oh! There are so many of them around my neighborhood in San Carlos it’s disgusting, thank you so much and good luck,” he replied.  This was one of the many positive reactions we received while informing people about the study.  One surprising reaction was from a man who became so paranoid that he frantically started picking up cigarette butts in front of his business. We tried to tell him that we were doing a survey, so he didn’t need to pick them up, but we couldn’t understand each other due to a language barrier. He eventually stopped and retreated into his business taking the cigarette butts with him. There’s no way to know how many cigarette butts he picked up, which is bad news for our litter survey. Too bad more people aren’t motivated to pick up their butts.

After 3 hours and 6 people surveying throughout San Mateo we received astonishing results. We collected 2,635 cigarette butts! The greatest amount of cigarette butts, which was 912, was collected from recreational areas (parks and trails). The most mind-blowing result of them all was the 500 cigarette butts found at one bus stop. In a nutshell, this survey shined a bright light on an even bigger problem throughout the San Francisco Bay.

Surveying San Mateo for cigarette butts completely changed my perspective on cigarettes. I always knew they were bad, but now I know that it is a problem that affects everyone — not just smokers themselves. We all appreciate living near the water, so why pollute it? Although cigarettes are small and seem like a back drop to what we see every day, collectively they pose a huge environmental problem. Click here to tell your city to adopt an outdoor smoking ban and create a butt free bay.