When we think about local policies that affect water quality, we think about polluted stormwater runoff, wellhead protection, septic systems … and smoke-free parks?
While smoking isn’t something we usually associate with having a negative effect on water quality, it should be. Cigarette butts are the most common form of litter in the world. How common? Well, according to research, each year there are 4.95 trillion filtered cigarettes smoked, which means those 4.95 trillion butts are being discarded. Butts are the most common form of trash found in our oceans.
The filters are not biodegradable, making them a persistent environmental problem. What is commonly overlooked, however, is that cigarette butts contain toxic chemicals. (more information here: http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/columns/straight-dope/article/20781759/do-cigarette-filters-do-anything)
We’re still learning about what the full effect of all those toxic chemicals leaching into our environment. Studies show that cigarette butts are lethal to aquatic life. So those 4.95 trillion butts, all leaching out toxic chemicals, are definitely not good for our water.
So what is an environmentalist to do? Well, beyond participating in stream clean ups to help remove litter, like cigarette butts, we can take steps to help prevent them from getting into our waterways to begin with. One such strategy is to pass a smoke-free parks ordinance. These ordinances, which have been adopted by more than half the municipalities in New Jersey, make it illegal to smoke in parks and open spaces within a town under penalty of a fine.
In our Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed, we have many waterfront parks. Ensuring that cigarette butts do not get introduced directly into our waterways is a first step in helping reduce the number of cigarette butts poisoning our waters. And, as an added benefits, reducing the number of cigarette butts discarded in open spaces can help reduce the risk of accidental brush and forest fires.
This is, of course, not a complete solution to the problem. Cigarette butts discarded from cars of flicked away still wind up in the environment. But this is not a problem that will be solved in one fell swoop. It’s an ongoing issue that will need to be addressed butt by butt.