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.

2,635 Pieces of Tiny Toxic Trash in San Mateo

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.