Please ... no more butts

By Jeannie Habben / Guest CommentarySeptember 12, 2012 

On Saturday, Sept. 8 we had a clean-up event on the Oakhurst River Parkway. We picked up trash along our very own 3.5 mile trail that connects the schools, the park, the Boys and Girls Club, the Library and other important locations of Oakhurst. Thank you to the 13 individuals who worked for three hours and collected 27 large bags of garbage and four large bags of recyclables.

Everyone walked away with a prize for volunteering and knowing that they made the difference.

One thing that was noticed by everyone working at this clean-up day is that there is never a shortage of cigarette butts to pick up. We picked up hundreds of cigarette butts on the trail.

The question is: Is it OK to treat our land as an ashtray? I have asked people who smoke what they think about littering. I had one individual say, "Littering is one of my pet peeves, and I always told my kids they'd be in big trouble if I catch them doing it -- I would never even throw a candy wrapper on the ground. I see people throwing things out of their car windows and I cringe."

I then asked about cigarette butts and she confessed that she routinely discarded cigarette butts on the ground or sidewalk. It seems that for countless people who smoke, cigarette butts seem to be the exception to the "no-littering" rule. I get asked, "Aren't cigarettes biodegradable?"

According to ButtsOut, the world annually discards about 4.3 trillion cigarette butts. By some estimates, 30% of all cigarettes smoked end up as litter, and although small in themselves, they can create over 500,000 tons of pollution per year.

Traditional butts are made of "synthetic polymer cellulose acetate" and never degrade, only breaking apart after roughly 12 years. Yet within an hour of contact with water, cigarette butts can begin leaching chemicals such as cadmium, lead, nicotine, benzene and arsenic into the environment.

These chemicals can end up in our water when butts are tossed along the Oakhurst River Parkway or other waterways in our watershed. This also does not account for the fact that butts and these chemicals also end up in the intestines of fish, birds and other animals.

People who smoke and discard their butts don't only cause an unsightliness or a cost to counties or businesses for the clean-up but where we live there is a much worse danger -- Fire. The reality is this -- A smoker has a fiery object in their hand and so they have to throw it down and crush it out under their heel. Even worse, they throw it from their car window while on the highway. Especially this time of year there is an extreme fire danger.

According to cigarettelitter.org, careless smoking is estimated to be the number one cause of fire related death and injury in the nation. The majority of these cases involve indoor smoking and careless extinguishing of smoking materials, but many of these fires are the result of littered cigarettes, whether tossed out of a car or thrown on the ground by pedestrians.

In the 70s, numerous radio and TV ads talked about cigarette littering as a major cause of forest fires and that is just as true today. Communities that don't take action on cigarette litter are exposing themselves to a very real potential for extensive property damage and fatalities.

So what can we do? If you must smoke, please be responsible. Try using an Altoids type metal tin as a portable ashtray. They last long and they fit in a pocket or purse. You can put your cigarette butts in the container and empty it at the end of each day.

Also, when you finally quit smoking you can just throw it away, it will rust away into harmless iron oxide after a year or so.

-- Jeannie Habben is the watershed coordinator for the Chowchilla/Fresno Rivers Watershed

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