Elise Roberts: Cigarette butt epidemic not solved with bylaws

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      As fires rage across our province and destroy communities and wildlife habitat, and make air unbearable to breath, I question why there is no media messaging anywhere in North Vancouver or the province, on government websites or city streets, about tossing cigarette butts and the fact that this irresponsible and careless behaviour is the number one cause of fires—not to mention the harm to the environment from butts going down storm drains and into our waterways.

      In March, I presented my Cigarette Butt Free Lonsdale Campaign to City of North Vancouver council. The epidemic of butts in the Lonsdale corridor has occurred due to well intended, but unenforceable, smoke-free policies that have led to an absence of ash trays in coffee shops, park benches, and business smoke-designated and customer service areas. I showed council images of different types of butt posts, noting that at ICBC where butt posts are installed there are no butts present. I showed council different types of garbage cans that have side pockets for recycling that people use for butts. I also showed them images of thousands of butts in our community.

      Yet, Vancouver Coastal Health still holds the perspective that if an ashtray is present that somehow it encourages people to smoke. TerraCycle, the company linked to tobacco companies that is taking some responsibility for their waste by installing butt recycle posts all around Vancouver, is somehow a villain. Ridiculous! Now VCH has influenced council to create a new smoke-free bylaw in parks, yet no solutions have been proposed regarding butts. I do support this policy near playgrounds. However this policy will lead to even more butts in the environment due to the lack of ashtrays in smoke-free areas, and the engineering department never cleans them up.

      On February 28, I picked up 1,142 butts just in one small area along the shoreline seawall west of the Seabus office. I proposed that ashtray posts be installed at the entrance and exits of smoke-free areas with a simple message: "Please deposit your butts here." Remember, toxic smoke from a cigarette lasts for five minutes then dissipates into the air; the toxic butt left behind lasts for up to 20 years. Vancouver Coastal Health states that only about eight percent of people smoke. I can guarantee, evident in the number of butts in our community, that about 95 percent of those smokers toss butts irresponsibly. In times of high rain flow volume, small items such as butts bypass catchment areas and can end up in local creeks and shorelines. One butt can pollute 30 litres of water. Shops that sell cigarettes do not have any policy to encourage the purchase of pocket size ashtrays.

      Butts are the most prevalent form of litter on Earth. An estimated 4.5 trillion butts are littered annually worldwide. World waterways are contaminated with an estimated 1.7 billion pounds of cigarette butts annually; such a tiny item is collectively having a huge negative impact on our environment. Cigarette butts are composed of cellulose acetate, a form of plastic, which can take up to 25 years to decompose in the environment. Filters, specially designed to accumulate toxins, leach out, each containing up to 1,400 chemicals that, when immersed in water, become a time-released capsule of benzenes, arsenic, acetone, ammonia, formaldehyde, lead, and toluene that can be lethal to aquatic wildlife. In July 2013, in the District of North Vancouver, there were 29 roadside fires. Probable cause: butts discarded from vehicles. My research found that ashtrays in cars became an add-on accessory about 15 years ago due to smoke-free policies and that very few smoking drivers ask for ashtrays when purchasing a new vehicle.

      There is a huge need for community engagement, raising awareness, and media messaging regarding the issue of butt litter and its harm to the environment. I asked for council's support, because I cannot do this huge task alone, but have yet to hear from them, their staff, or VCH regarding their ideas for solutions to harmful and toxic butt litter.

      Elise Roberts is the founder of Litter Free Communities in North Vancouver and has been involved in the community for over 20 years. She won the Award of Honour from the District of North Vancouver in February 2014.



      James Blatchford

      Jul 21, 2014 at 10:45pm

      There is no evidence linking littered cigarette butts to smokers....none.

      Vladimir Putin


      Jul 22, 2014 at 1:44am

      I use a water filled cup placed in the cup holder of my van to put out butts. I never throw them out the window.

      Some of us do understand.


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      Jul 22, 2014 at 8:58am

      Make it a $1000 fine to throwing a butt on the ground. Problem solved.


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      James Blatchford

      Jul 22, 2014 at 10:41am

      @ Fine....careful, you will unleash the righteous smokers validation posse...RSVP.

      That hacking you hear is them being roused off the couch in a cloud of indignation and stale smoke.

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      Jul 22, 2014 at 9:00pm

      @ Fine: so an absurdly punitive fine is your solution to those problem. Is that because you believe cigarette butts are such a scourge on society that $1000 is a reasonable number or is it because you don't like smokers? Would you propse the same fine for all litter that isn't biodegradable? Would a paper cup without a lid get a lesser fine than one with a plastic lid?

      The real problem with such a punitive fine is that it will discourage ticketing, just as the higher fine offence of riding a bike on the sidewalk is rarely ticketed by police while helmet free riders get targeted. There could be zero enforcement in the Downtown Eastside, the social justice league gets upset about jaywalking tickets: imagine how they would react to a $1000 cigarette butt fine. Any rational effort to combat a problem has to use punishment commensurate with the offence. Speeding in a playground zone costs up to $253 and you believe cigarette butt tosses won't only should but would pay $1000? Ridiculous, un-enforceable and only useful as a make work project for bureaucrats.

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      Jul 23, 2014 at 9:27am

      Given that human beings have eaten pretty much all of the fish and have nearly eaten everything else, perhaps the proper government position on smoking is to make it compulsory.

      As for litterbugs, forget fines. Picking butts off the beach is the sort of make-work job that some enterprising kid should pitch to local employers or the city, there being no lawns to mow.

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      Nancy JR, Ontario

      Jul 24, 2014 at 4:00am

      Well said Ms. Roberts! As an on-the-road sales rep I travel the highways routinely. I am so often pelted with still-burning cigarettes tossed out of car and truck windows, accompanied by fast-food wrappers and even, once, a plastic bottle filled with urine. Kudos to anyone who assists with a solution rather than compounds a problem.

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      Jul 24, 2014 at 2:35pm

      Elise you should read the article written by Elizabeth Smith & Thomas Novotny called "Whose butt is it? Tobacco industry research about smokers and cigarette butt waste". "The tobacco industry's research shows how much smokers disliked cigarette butts, littered or in ashtrays. Smokers found them smelly and dirty; they were unwilling to put them in their car ashtrays, carry them around in portable ashtrays, or hold them for more than a few steps to discard them appropriately. Creating butt litter made smokers uncomfortable even as they did it. Furthermore, smokers had multiple, sometimes conflicting, reasons for littering their butts: it was conscientious and rebellious, and it minimised their contact with an unpleasant reminder of their addiction. As the industry found, the complex psychology of butt littering made difficult identifying any message that might change the behaviour."