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The Juneau Clean Air coalition participated in the Ocean Conservancy's International Coastal Cleanup on Saturday morning. They joined volunteers around the world for the 24th year of the event, which is always held on the third Saturday in September.
The Ocean Conservancy asks their volunteers to keep data sheets on the types and amount of litter they collect. With brooms, dustpans, recyclable plastic bags and data sheets, the Juneau Clean Air members focused on the downtown area, picking up cigarette butts and other litter such as plastic food wrappers and bottles.
Cigarette butts are the number one littered item around the world, in every country and every type of environment. According to multiple environmental reporting agencies, several trillion cigarette butts are littered every year on the planet, an estimated annual weight of 1.7 billion pounds of butts. Experts say cigarette butts are a real problem - not just for their sheer volume, but for their toxicity and non-biodegradable nature.
Many people erroneously think cigarette butts are biodegradable. They are not. There are 12,000 strands in each cigarette filter of a plastic called cellulose acetate. This plastic does not break down and cigarette filters end up as a plastic residue that stays in the environment for decades. However, the plastic residue is not the only problem.
Cigarette filters are also highly toxic, containing a concentration of poisons and hazardous chemicals from cigarettes including arsenic, lead, acetone, ammonia, cadmium, benzene and butane. When the butts are tossed toxins are leaked into the ground and local waterways. Cigarette butts have also been found in the stomachs of aquatic wildlife around the globe, including fish, birds and sea mammals. One study found that in 200 used filters there is 50-60 milligrams of nicotine, enough to kill an adult human.
Cigarette litter has become such a problem on beaches, in parks and other public use areas that places like Chicago have banned smoking or tossing a cigarette within 15 feet of a beach. According to a recent Chicago Tribune article, Chicago joins a growing list of locations from Hawaii to South Carolina that have banned smoking on public beaches due to water pollution. In addition, 356 public parks nationwide have prohibited smoking on park grounds.
Juneau's numbers stack up the same as the international trend. Despite the fact that the city of Juneau street maintenance crews had finished their daily cleaning of the streets at 6 a.m., at 9 a.m., the Juneau Clean Air coalition picked up almost 1,350 cigarette butts in a three-block area during an hour and a half. The second most common littered item was food wrappers or containers at 47.
Cigarette butts are found worldwide along roadways, waterways, public use areas, building entrances, sidewalks and even hiking trails. It only takes seconds to use a butt receptacle or an ashtray, or to field strip and pocket a used filter for disposal later. Cigarette litter is not about smoking, it's about littering.
Wendy Hamilton is the Tobacco Program Coordinator for the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.