Cigarette butts create sizable trash trouble

Saturday, April 9, 2005

With one flick, Dustin discards his largely unsmoked cigarette onto the ground in front of Kmart's entrance. He does not look down to see if it has been extinguished. He continues to walk as if he has done nothing wrong, nothing criminal.

His excuse: "I just do it. I didn't think."

Dustin is just one of many smokers who do not consider their habit of discarding cigarette butts on the ground as littering. They justify their actions by saying the cigarette filters being discarded are small.

They are light and small, but when collected together, their mass adds up. The filters in a pack of 20 cigarettes weigh a little more than a tenth of an ounce, but 10,000 cigarettes-- one year's consumption for one smoker -- weigh in at 3.75 pounds of potential litter.

"You can divide that by 50, and it's still a humongous amount," said Ginny Wallace, No MOre Trash committee member and Missouri Department of Conservation coordinator. Wallace said she sees the largest piles of butts at intersections where drivers dump their ashtrays while stopped.

Thousands of discarded cigarette leftovers also make their way into parks, highways, drains, and curbs as people flick them while walking and out of their car windows.

It takes 18 months to 10 years for cigarette filters to degrade because they are made of cellulose acetate, a plastic. If the disposal work is left to nature, a potentially massive pile of butts could accumulate.

The recently formed Anti-Litter Campaign Committee has discussed possible educational programs that would inform area smokers that the butts they're throwing on the ground are litter. The ideas included passing literature out at the university and talking to junior high counselors, said Doug Austin, a committee member.

They also talked about establishing a weigh-in station at the Show Me Center where volunteer groups could bring the cigarettes they have collected.

"It's just a general rule that people aren't thinking when they are flicking," said Tim Arbeiter, executive director of the downtown redevelopment organization Old Town Cape.

This attitude creates a heavy workload for those concerned with keeping Cape Girardeau clean.

Currently there are no ash receptacles on the downtown streets in Cape Girardeau. Arbeiter says this is because the receptacles that were in place weren't used much and one by one went missing.

The lack of proper places to discard cigarettes is another excuse smokers offer in defense of flicking.

Dan Muser, director of parks and recreation in Cape Girardeau, said ash receptacles are impractical in the parks and expensive.

"I doubt seriously if they'd be used. They'd more likely be used to vandalize," Muser said.

Only cigarettes near buildings are picked up.

"Around the buildings we sweep them up. In the parks we don't generally deal with them at all. If they're in the grass, they get chewed up by the mower," Muser said.

Because the cigarettes in the parks hide in the grass or are chewed up into tiny pieces by machinery, Muser said the cigarette problem is more noticeable on the streets where they collect in the gutters and on curbs.

But, Wallace says, just because cigarette butts cannot be seen at first glance does not mean that they are not there. They are easily overlooked because they have become a familiar sight and because they are small.

"When you look at a pile of trash you see a lot of things -- but you don't often see the cigarette butts because they worked their way down into the blades of grass," she said.

cpierce@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 127

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