To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.
~ William Blake, Auguries of Innocence
When I was young, my mother was not a tidy person. She claimed to have started smoking when she was twelve, and chain-smoked for the rest of her life. She tossed used cigarettes on the ground, a not-unusual practice at the time. In fact, cigarette butts on the ground was a very common sight as I grew up. People everywhere would finish their cigarette, drop it on the ground and grind it with their shoe to put it out. (My brother, of course, had to show off by stomping a lit cigarette with his bare foot!)
I once had a friend who smoked unfiltered cigarettes and always shredded his ‘smokes’ when he was done — a common practice, apparently, for those in the military. But the development of filtered cigarettes in the 1950’s put an end to shredding, as a butt containing a filter was nearly indestructible — so some people collected and saved the butts for disposal later. However, most people just kept tossing them away. It was ironic that the filters were cheaper than tobacco to fill up a cigarette, but they provided almost no protection to human lungs.
By the 1960’s, more attention was given to littering, and society’s consciousness was raised about simply throwing stuff away. My observation was that the increased awareness helped and there actually were fewer candy and fast food wrappers littering places back then — but there were almost always cigarette butts in view on the ground. (Roadside littering of beer cans reportedly became an issue when Joe Coors got angry with seeing his name among the roadside trash, and started a can recycling movement.)
Then the truth about the real health impacts of smoking began to come out. The hazards of smoking, and the resultant social resistance to smoking, made smokers more conscious of where and when they smoked. Bars and restaurants ultimately banned it, as did most offices and commercial establishments. Designated smoking areas were sometimes established to stop the crowd of smokers from hanging just outside the front doors. Not only was smoking socially unacceptable, but littering cigarette butts compounded the negative perception. So, ultimately, smoking became less common, and, at least in public, the prevalence of littering cigarette butts declined, as well.
My observation is echoed by reporting from Laura Parker, who notes, “Candy wrappers and chip bags have become the most commonly found beach trash, surpassing cigarette butts as the top item for the first time … Even as plastic packaging … became the dominant plastic in the global waste stream, the lowly cigarette filter clung to first place for the 34-year history of the Ocean Conservancy’s beach cleanups. Now it ranks number two, with 4.2 million butts recovered. Food wrappers top the list, with more than 4.7 million individual wrappers gathered.”
I suppose it’s sorta good news that fewer cigarette butts are ending up on our beaches, but it’s certainly disheartening that ‘candy wrappers and chip bags’ are more prevalent. “The other items in the top ten relate to food and drink, and most of those are not recyclable. The list includes bottles and caps, straws and stirrers, cups, lids, take-away containers, and plastic bags.”
Of course, plastics and trash in the oceans don’t just come from the U.S. — many countries discard their trash in the oceans, directly or indirectly. Street litter ends up in gutters, then streams, rivers and ultimately, the ocean. The waste material interferes directly with ocean life and can break down into smaller, indigestible sizes that pass through the food chain. Since most plastics are essentially indestructible in nature, they will be present essentially forever.
The best approach is to stop it at the source. Let’s not just clean our beaches or rescue ocean creatures from the plastic, but actually prevent the trash from getting into the environment in the first place.
Instead of in the sandy grains
A world in a cigarette brand,
And through Eternity it remains
Infinitely among the sand.
(apologies to William Blake)
Laura Parker, Plastic Food Packaging Now Outpaces Cigarette Butts as Most Abundant Beach Trash, September 8, 2020, National Geographic