Time to ban smoking in East Bay Parks

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.

cigarette butts
3 billion cigarette butts are littered in the Bay Area each year.

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 butts are 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.

Changing Behavior

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.

 

Earth Day Cleanup For a #ButtFreeBay

Earth Day Cigarette Butt Cleanup
Volunteers collected 7,873 cigarette butts our Earth Day Cleanup in El Cerrito.

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.

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.

Notes from the Front Lines of the New War on Smoking

East Bay Express Smoking Cigarette Butts Save The Bay Pollution Prevention Awareness
A shot of the cover of the East Bay Express’s “New Warn On Smoking” article.

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).

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.