During the early Saturday morning hours of Oct. 22, volunteers lined up in front of Ocean Beach yet again. They were here just two weekends ago, But they knew they could fill their buckets mainly with one thing: cigarette butts.
They were ready to spend the next two hours of their weekend ensuring the beach was clean for the public. The volunteers had three waste containers: one for trash, one for plastic and one just for cigarette butts.
Cigarette butts are not only the highest form of trash collected from national parks and beaches but also the most littered item in the world. Every year, 4.5 trillion butts are disposed of and 3 billion butts are littered.
In response to this, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a new law that will ban the use of cigarettes, nicotine and marijuana vapes at state parks and beaches. Starting Jan. 1, the state’s Department of Parks and Recreation will be required to put up no-smoking signs at beaches and parks. There will be a fine up to $25 for a person caught smoking, and it will be considered an infraction.
Cigarette butts contain heavy metals, including poisonous lead, that leach into water and soil, threatening water quality, marine life, and seafood safety. A study from San Diego State University conducted in 2010 suggests one cigarette butt in a single liter of water is sufficient to kill both marine and freshwater fish. Although how this translates from the laboratory to an actual aquatic setting isn’t yet clear, but researchers speculate these numbers have gotten worse.
Dr. Thomas Novotny, Division of Epidemiology and Biostatistics Professor at San Diego State University, and one of the researchers who conducted this study.
“We don’t think the [cigarette Butt] does any good for people. It’s not really a filter, it’s just a marketing tool,” said Dr. Novotny, one of the researchers who conducted the study and a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics. “Cigarette filters are a form of pesticide that devastates marine life. People Have to stop smoking.”
Although the state beaches ban will further discourage smokers from contaminating beaches and parks, he worries the law has very vague wording.
“Bonafide religious groups can have an exception for smoking on beaches, which just opens the door to a lot of deception and irregularity,” he said.
Native Americans smoke for religious ceremonial rituals and are not specified in the law.
The efforts to stop cigarette use on beaches in California goes back to 2005, “Hold On To Your Butts” is an example of a campaign that has been fighting for years to end cigarette smoking on beaches nationwide. It is run by SurfRider, an organization who partners with local businesses. Along with installing trash cans specific for cigarette butts called “Buttcans” throughout San Francisco, they educate smokers. One of the biggest lessons they impart is that cigarette butts are not filters for the nicotine, despite what companies have historically claimed.
SurfRider is the umbrella organization that runs volunteer beach cleanups. Cigarette butts collected in the beach cleanups are sent to a company TerraCycle and recycled. TerraCycle recycles cigarette butts through its Cigarette Waste Brigade program, which launched in Canada in 2012. The program has since expanded into the US, Australia and Japan. They introduced a free recycling program in the US, where a person can earn “TerraCycle points” which are redeemable for charitable gifts, like donations for local schools or non-profit of the person’s choice.
Lisa Pelligrino is Terracycle’s Strategic Partnerships’ Manager. TerraCycle’s headquarters in NYC is completely decorated with recycled items as Pelligrino explained her desk is a recycled old door, her walls are recycled art-covered from the ceilings to the floors.
“The cigarette filter is made from cellulose acetate, like plastic. It’s a misconception that they’re cotton or biodegradable.” Pelligrino said, adding that this is a social habit. “ People think it’s socially cool to flick a cigarette butt, even worse, they think they’re heroes for not throwing them in the trash and causing a fire.”
Melanie Napelz, a beach cleanup coordinator, said that she doesn’t think the penalty of $25 will be effective.
“California coastline is National Park Service including Ocean Beach, most of San Francisco, even the aquatic Park area down by Crisfield. That’s all covered by the National Park Service. I do think it’s a great step. I don’t know how they’re going to enforce it. Especially at a beach of this size,” said Napelz.
Naplez’s opinion was shared by regular visitors to the beach who believed that “butt cans” could be a solution to this problem.
People should change their fundamental behavior of disposing of cigarette butts, since, “ a lot of people were taught to be able to throw it [cigarette butts] on the ground,” added Napelz.
Some of Ocean Beach visitors are dog walkers and regulars who enjoy the Ocean breeze of the Beach, playing fetch with their dogs, and Frisbee matches on the weekends.
“The amount of butts that I was throwing out was a lot, even subconsciously I was throwing them out, after quitting I realized it was 44 butts a week.” said Richard Matt, a beachgoer, while holding his dog’s leash and pointing at the beach.
Matt went on to explain that this law will help smokers like himself limit smoking on beaches all together, as people don’t have the knowledge to differentiate between State and National beaches and parks.
He added, “I believe it’s a step in the right direction.”