Not too long ago, smoking was allowed in offices, on airplanes and even in the waiting room waiting to see a doctor. All the cigarette butts piled high in ashtrays would end up being disposed of in garbage bags and ultimately, ending up in our landfills.
Back then, there was not much of a concern for the impact of these cigarette butts on our health nor on the environment by throwing them away or even throwing them out of the car window.
In the last few decades though, as the environmental and aesthetic effects of the trash grew, tolerance of cigarette butts as litter turned into activism with laws being policed and smoking became less tolerated as did the trash created by the very act of smoking.
Along the way, increased awareness and activity started putting discarded cigarette butts under the microscope as they continued to be one of the largest sources of litter.
Smokers seem to be oblivious to the fact that not only is throwing cigarette butts away against the law, the butts are also not biodegradable and leach heavy metals such as arsenic, copper, formaldehyde into the environment and ultimately becoming toxic food to be consumed by marine life.
There is no denying that smoking is more than a health problem. It is also a serious environmental threat and we need to do something about it.
Many cities have street ashtrays but they are usually ugly things and consequently located ‘out of plain sight’. A case in point, I was recently in Vancouver, one of the world’s greenest cities – and while there were small butt bins fixed to light posts, there appeared to be little sense to their locations and they were so discrete as to be almost unnoticeable. There was also seating along the streets to accommodate the weary shopper but no ashtrays nearby. Not surprisingly the footpaths were pock marked with crushed cigarette ends.
An infrastructure program based on the pattern of disposal would see appropriately designed ashtrays located where smokers are mostly likely to gather and with those ashtrays as obvious as waste and recycling bins. A complementary strategy would be to ‘go small’ by legislating for tobacco companies to create packets that include a disposal compartment, thus giving smokers an option to ‘pocket the butt’ until it can be disposed of responsibly.
On education, there is already a significant public health program on the dangers of smoking. Advertisements in the media or warnings on cigarette packets are part of an information initiative that has seen the number of smokers significantly reduced where it has been applied. Why not piggyback on success and incorporate environmental warnings into this media?
Smoking not only kills you, it kills the planet!
These strategies will take time, but combined with the nagging pressure of community expectations, eventually they will change behaviour and see the few smokers left in our world disposing of cigarette butts properly.