No ifs, ands or cigarette butts

Thursday, June 23, 2005

June 23, 2005

Dear Patty,

In Arizona, a "stow it, don't throw it" campaign discourages smokers from tossing their cigarette butts out the car window. That's backed up by a maximum $500 fine. It's a littering violation, but Arizona is primarily concerned with preventing wildfires.

Throwing a cigarette butt on the ground is littering in Missouri, too, but as crimes go it's a scofflaw's dream. Most Missouri smokers stopped for flicking a butt would laugh the cop off the street.

The community does have an anti-litter campaign going. One afternoon earlier this week, volunteers from the company I work for picked up litter in the vicinity of our building. We were sent out into the world of trash armed with Latex gloves, water bottles and trash bags. We were unprepared. We needed vacuum cleaners.

My one-hour assignment was to police a two-block length of Fountain Street. One block is residential. The federal courthouse is on one side of the other block, a church on the other side.

My litter booty on those two blocks included:

* An abandoned car of the toy kind.

* Three spent shell casings, now in a safe place just in case CSI technicians want to see them.

* A shopping cart.

* And hundreds of cigarette butts.

So many butts were next to the courthouse that at some point I started counting them. The unofficial total on that side of the block was 89. You figure lots of nervous people use that sidewalk.

Working my way further down the two blocks and back again it was obvious that cigarette butts accounted for almost all the litter. Unless someone has dumped an ashtray, most of us walk the streets without noticing all the cigarette butts. But if you're looking for them they're everywhere, in the cracks in the sidewalk and next to the curb. Some are adorned with lipstick.

Retrieving each one meant bending down repeatedly, like someone picking cotton. Each bend was accompanied by a silent curse for the person who discarded this in our Garden of Eden.

You wonder: Do they throw cigarette butts on their own sidewalk and on their own driveway?

Many years ago I was one of those smokers carelessly turning God's creation into my personal ashtray. It didn't occur to me that throwing away a tiny cigarette butt was littering. That's still the case with lots of people.

We could send patrols of volunteers out every few weeks to pick up the butts. But several trillion are tossed into the world every year, each containing toxic chemicals, each requiring up to 15 years to decompose. How could we ever keep up?

Obviously, smokers can't be so irresponsible anymore. And the rest of us can't let them. Each of us can improve the quality of life in our corner of the world merely by being more conscious about how we live. Scotland has banned smoking in enclosed public places. All bars and restaurants in Minneapolis are smoke-free. Beaches up and down the Southern California coast have banned smoking.

The smoking lamp is still lit in Southeast Missouri. The sidewalks and streets are littered with the filters tobacco companies developed in the 1950s to reassure people that cigarettes weren't harmful.

Love, Sam

Sam Blackwell is managing editor of the Southeast Missourian.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: