A littering habit Baltimore needs to kick

Thousands of discarded cigarette butts mar the city’s landscape

April 28, 2010|By Megan L. Mueller

After a record-breaking winter, the beginning of spring in Baltimore could not be more welcome. With beautiful weather and the start of baseball season, spring brings many opportunities to get outdoors and enjoy our city. However, the melting snow drifts revealed a dirty secret: thousands upon thousands of cigarette butts littering our streets and sidewalks.

Baltimore faces a huge pollution problem from littered cigarette butts, which is only exacerbated as we spend more time outdoors. Now that Baltimore is smoke-free in most indoor public places, smokers are often relegated to doorways and street corners that lack any convenient disposal option. While it is easy to flick a cigarette onto the street, cleaning up that butt takes effort of the Downtown Partnership and others who clean the city sidewalks. Obviously, they are unable to collect all or even most cigarette butts. These butts are not only ugly, they have serious environmental ramifications for our environment and wildlife when washed into the bay. After just four days, one cigarette butt in the water releases enough toxic chemicals to kill fish.

The problem of cigarette butts is not unique to Baltimore, of course. Earlier this month, the Ocean Conservancy, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group, released the latest version of its annual report on ocean debris. Its conclusion: Pollution increasingly plagues our coasts, with cigarettes and cigarette butts a major source of this trash. In fact, cigarettes and their butts represent the single largest category of marine debris globally, and the third largest in Maryland (narrowly trailing behind beverage containers and food wrappers). Cigarette butts dumped in Baltimore streets wash from the sidewalks into the bay and contribute to these numbers.

Why do so many people who would never dump other garbage in the street nevertheless flick their butts without a second thought? The problem is twofold: (1) many smokers are unaware of the problems related to littered butts; and (2) smokers face little consequence for improperly disposing of their cigarettes.

That's unfortunate. Because filters are made out of cellulose-acetate, a material that does not biodegrade, a butt littered today will remain in the environment forever, and smokers have little incentive to change their behavior.

While there is no one solution that would rid Baltimore of butts, through awareness and education — utilizing ashtrays, and providing those receptacles outside of bars, restaurants and other areas where smokers congregate — we can instigate change. Disposable ash trays, small thermal-lined wallet-like devices, are also available, providing conscientious smokers a safe and environmentally friendly option.

If a voluntary change in behavior through these or alternative measures in insufficient, reduction in this trash can also be achieved through financial measures. Municipalities such as San Francisco have imposed additional cigarette taxes to pay for clean-up, while California has expanded littering laws to include a mandatory $270 fine for the littering of cigarettes from vehicles; upwards of 5,000 citations are issued annually.

Baltimore's first annual sustainability report, released this month, found that while the city has improved on some environmental measures, notably recycling, it has a long way to go in other areas, including street litter and illegal dumping. With the already burdensome workload on our public servants, we should each do our part to ensure the beauty of Baltimore is not besmirched by cigarette butts.

Megan L. Mueller is an environmental law student at the University of Maryland School of Law. Her e-mail is megan.l.mueller@gmail.com.

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