Individuals may get away with minimizing our personal foibles but any society collectively practicing the same deceit is doomed to suffer the consequences. Case in point. Why do we minimize the impact of cigarette butts on our environment, classifying them as “litter,” when they in fact represent the most toxic waste every one of us encounters on a daily basis? They’re everywhere underfoot from the carpet of butts outside every public building to playground sand boxes. Well intended legislation banning smoking in public facilities has unwittingly compounded the problem moving it outdoors adding to the cumulative toxic eyesore. How serious a problem am I describing? If we limit the discussion to the Hamilton region and accept Health Canada’s projection 17% of Canadians are smokers, this translates to 125000 polluters in the region. At a modest 10 cigarettes per day and the actual sales numbers indicate the probability of twice that consumption rate, this translates to a phenomenal one and a quarter MILLION butts per day or about a half BILLION butts per annum. These numbers represent not only an eyesore but concern is the toxicity.
The millions of dollars of government negative ads have heightened our awareness of the health risks of smoking to the point two thirds of smokers have actually stopped the habit but few people are knowledgeable about the toxicity issues. Are you aware the filter isn’t benign cotton or some other innocuous membrane but a plastic base known as cellulose acetate an almost non-biodegradable substance requiring more than twenty years degradation in a dump site for elimination? And the “tar” in the butt is not a petroleum product residue but an equally undegradable thermally generated compendium of carcinogens from the 1400 chemicals constituting a cigarettes makeup. We’ll never know the exact composition because cigarettes are neither food nor drug and therefore protected by manufacturer’s trade secrets.
The toxicity issue is not limited to humans. The majority of these butts end up on the street where they are subject to mixing with other surface contaminants that become a major component of storm runoff. Storm debris then enters the water ecosystem out of sight, commencing their toxic journey into the food chain. Most of us are aware cigarettes contain nicotine as a major craving inducer and some of us understand the physiologic downside of fast heart rate and blood pressure elevation that tag along with the psychological buzz; but not too many of us are aware nicotine is a potent insecticide extremely soluble in water and therefore able to cross the skin barrier of just about every living organism. We know this because Daphnia, our very small microorganism crustacean friends at the bottom of the food chain have been studied extensively to determine the environmental impact of tobacco products. One butt in one liter of water is lethal for 100% of these critical members of the food chain after a single hour of exposure. If we can escape the mindset that this is a mere litter issue, there is a solution. Step one is to add a recycle tax of a penny per butt and a nickel per package to the cost. Of course the smokers will plead this environmental tax is the last straw but if they recycle the tax becomes neutral. You only lose the recycle fee if you continue to litter.
As a further incentive, consider the tax dollars now being dissipated by municipalities for street and park cleanup. For those argumentative types who minimize the environmental appearance of these butts I refer you to the stats from those annual shoreline cleanups by more progressively active communities. 50% of the toxic waste they collect consists of butts, wrappers, lighters and other smoker paraphernalia. The fundamentals of a recycle program already exist. There is manufacturing facility in Mississauga able to recycle the tars and plastics. Can it work? Vancouver had a one day experiment earlier this year where the binners (that’s west coast slang for street people) were paid a penny a butt and enthusiastically collected about 60,000 butts per hour in a 6 block radius. This is a toxic waste problem with a solution. Its time to “light up” the political process. We’re already practiced recyclers of paper, metal, glass and cans. Its time to kick butt.
Dr. David Carll