470,437,945,912 cigarette butts unaccounted-for
J. Taylor Buckley
From sea to shining sea, on sidewalks, beaches and parking lots, America is
kicking butts. Or, at least walking all over them.
As anti-smoking sentiment cleanses the landscape of ashtrays and interior air
purists banish smokers to streets, cigarette butts are under foot as never before.
Whether flipped in defiance or just dropped for lack of a receptacle, butt
numbers are multiplying where smokers congregate, and debate now rages not
just over secondhand smoke, but over secondhand cigarettes.
The evidence is clear. Filter-tip butts that once got punched into ashtrays en route
to the dump now languish in every conceivable cranny, from cemetery statuary
to bellies of whales.
Small in size, plague-like in number, several trillion are out there at any given
time, snuggled among Q-tips and coat hangers in landfills, peeking up from park
trails, bobbing along in storm sewers, getting ground to ash and plastic pulp in
the concrete ghettos where smokers of the '90s skulk like lepers of yore.
``Something is missing in the minds of people who think it's OK to throw a
cigarette into the park when they wouldn't think of tossing a coffee cup,'' says
Alexander Grannis, a New York assemblyman and anti-litter crusader. ``Smokers
treat our sidewalks . . . as public ashtrays.''
``He's right,'' grumbles Willie Holloway, the maintenance man in charge of the
sidewalk in front of 444 N. Michigan Avenue, a downtown Chicago office
building. ``You get one batch of butts swept up, and here comes another batch. I
don't like it.''
If we are not walking on them, we are swimming in cigarette butts. Literally.
The Center for Marine Conservation recently announced the result of its 1995
coastal cleanup: The cigarette butt came up No. 1 on its Dirty Dozen list, with
volunteers plucking 800,358 of them from beaches and shores last year.
In the larger butt world, where the typical cellulose acetate filter has an afterlife
of five to seven years, the beach cleanup total is a granule in a sandstorm.
Butt numbers make intergalactical distances look like quick commutes. They
outstrip the capacity of the standard calculator. They make government spending
figures appear almost manageable.
The 800,358 butts reported to the marine center came from only 5,870 miles of
shoreline. That comes out to 136 butts a mile, which suggests 12,054,088 butts a
year wash up on the nation's 88,633 miles of tidal shoreline.
A lot of butts, you say? Considering that Americans light up about 470.45 billion
filter-tip cigarettes a year (only 3% of all cigarettes smoked are filterless), the
shoreline total, which is the only official butt count available, leaves
470,437,945,912 butts unaccounted for. That's almost half a trillion. And that's
just for one year.
Many are discarded properly.
Terry Hanlin, 40, an administrative assistant in Seattle, says she's so
conscientious that she carries a sandwich bag with a little water in it for butt
disposal where ashtrays aren't available. ``I know a lot of people don't care,'' she
says, ``and give the rest of us a bad name.''
Absent an ashtray, millions of smokers like Robert Potashnick, a 22-year-old
University of Washington student, pack their butts home in their pockets.
``The worst case scenario,'' says Potashnick, ``is that I won't be able to wear
these pants tonight.''
The consequences of improper disposal are burned in the mind of Mindy
Herman, 34, a telecommunications executive in Los Angeles. ``A couple of years
ago I tossed a butt out of my car window at an intersection, and it landed on a
cop's windshield. He wrote me a special ticket: two days of traffic school.''
But does flipping a teensy-weensy butt constitute littering?
Gina Gianetto, 28, allows as how she's been known to toss butts from her
fourth-floor apartment balcony over Seattle's Pike Place Market.
She says she always takes precautions, however, ``to the point of running them
under water first,'' and tries not to have the butts ``hit people's sunroofs.''
``Hey, they're always sweeping the street,'' Gianetto says.
She's right. ``They'' always are sweeping the streets.
``If we didn't pick them up, they'd be ankle deep in a few hours,'' says Jerry
Johnson, facilities services supervisor at Pike Place, who figures butt sweeping
costs his crews 190 person-hours a month.
Similarly plagued is Stan Eberhardt, 46, whose job at Harold Washington
College in Chicago's Loop includes butt removal.
``Every half hour or so, you have to go out and sweep up,'' Eberhardt says.
``Sometimes, even if I'm right there with my broom and dustpan, they drop their
butts right in front of my feet. Hell, that's just rude.''
Maybe it's thoughtlessness. Maybe it's retribution for being forced to cower
outside like whipped dogs just to take a few drags. Either way, the mounting
stray-butt problem defies simple solution.
``It shouldn't be society's job to pick up after smokers,'' says assemblyman
Grannis. He thinks it's up to the tobacco companies ``to work on a product that
would not be such a blight,'' though they are hardly the only ones making a
product with a litter component. He is not optimistic.
``Absent a strong kick in the butt, the companies have shown they are unwilling
to move until the pressure becomes unbearable.''
One big company, however, has taken at least some steps. R.J. Reynolds
Tobacco, through its Smokers For A Clean America campaign, has distributed 5
million portable, disposable pouch-like ashtrays since 1991 to about 10,000
individuals, companies and civic organizations such as Keep America Beautiful.
This year alone, Keep America Beautiful and its community groups have
distributed 500,000 of the plastic, foil-lined pouches.
The Environmental Protection Agency doesn't track butts as a separate solid
waste item. They don't clog sewers, and besides their obvious benefit as a
reducer of the tobacco residue that would otherwise be sucked into a smoker's
lungs, the filter makes a fine ear plug, as Army riflemen discovered ages ago.
But as a blight, butts are gaining stature every day. Laid end to end, the butts
somewhere out there right now would reach half way to the sun.
Contributing: Kevin V. Johnson in Chicago, Deeann Glamser in Seattle and
Jonathan Lovitt in Los Angeles.
PHOTO,color,Todd Buchanan; PHOTO,b/w,Todd Buchanan; Caption: Butts:
Smoker stands on littered Chicago sidewalk. Atop a trash can: Butt used to be
punched into ashtrays en route to the dump. Now they languish in every