While traveling through Northern California for the holidays, I saw an interesting sign at an Interstate 5 rest stop. It was a sign for “Butts to Watts.”
I had never heard of this program. It’s some partnership between CalTrans and some outfit actually called “Cigarette Butt Services” to take used cigarette butts and incinerate them to create energy. So, smokers at rest stops all through California are being asked to drop their butts into these special bins rather than the regular trash bin. According to CalTrans, 44 million people stop at California rest stops every year, so that’s a lot of smokers stopping each year as well. (I like the little bars across the top to keep people from throwing stuff other than cigarette butts into the bin, which would make the whole program pretty useless.).
Apparently, cigarette butts create a lot of BTUs and are considered a high-yield material for incineration plants. The program also seeks to get millions of pounds of cigarette butts out of landfills.
Interestingly, while trying to do a bit of research on energy from cigarette butts, there is another way being proposed to get energy out of this source of trash. Korean scientists have found that the carbon material in cigarette butts (yeah, cigarette butts may look like they’re made out of cotton, but they’re actually mostly made out of plastic), in cigarette butts could be cleaned and recycled as a medium for energy storage, like a battery. This material outperforms a lot of other common energy storage materials.
Something that doesn’t get talked a lot about the scourge of tobacco is the littering and pollution problem caused by millions upon millions of cigarette butts being tossed aside into the environment.
Cigarette butts are the No. 1 item by weight cleaned up on U.S. beaches. Yeah, those little tiny cigarette butts end up weighing more than all the plastic bottles and beer cans they clean up on our beaches. Thirty-two percent of the trash picked up on U.S. beaches during beach clean-ups is cigarette butts.
I thought this was an interesting story about an experimental water wheel installed in Baltimore Harbor to help clean up cigarettes. According to this article from , over 160 tons of trash was removed by the contraption in one year — that included 97,000 bottles and 80,000 potato chip bags. Get this, it also included 4 million cigarette butts. It just dwarfs the other trash by sheer volume.
This is why I’m not especially sympathetic to people complaining about smoking bans in parks and beaches. If so many smokers didn’t use parks and beaches as an ashtray (and I get it, not all of them do it — but too many do it so ultimately smokers have no one to blame but themselves on this one.), then they wouldn’t bother with smoking bans on parks and beaches. These are more of a litter and pollution issue than a secondhand smoke issue. And these cigarette butts are made out of plastic and non-biodegradable. They clog up the environment for decades.
Something that gets overlooked a lot about cigarettes — their effect on the environment.
An organization called DoSomething.org, (Seems to be related to Truth.com) is highlighting the truly shocking and amazing impact cigarettes have on the environment — mostly from the filters being tossed away on the ground. The group is starting a campaign to the get the word out about the damage done from cigarettes, using a series of Internet memes to get its point across.
For instance, cigarettes are the No. 1 most littered item in the entire world resulting in 1.7 billion tons per year of trash in the environment.
That may sound like a shocking number, but keep in mind just how many cigarettes get smoked each year. In the United States alone, about 45 million people smoke. Say those 45 million people average roughly one pack a day — that translates into 900 million cigarettes a day and more than 300 billion cigarettes a year. And that’s just the U.S. It’s bad enough that that’s in the waste stream, but a lot of cigarette butts end up in the environment, not just landfills. Say just a measly 10 percent of those cigarette butts end up on beaches, parks and sidewalks — that’s 30 billion cigarette butts a year being dumped into the environment.
Other effects on the enviromment: One tree is chopped down to create just 15 cigarettes. Again, do the math — that’s 20 billion trees a year to feed the U.S.’s smoking habit.
Also keep in mind that the filters in cigarettes are not made of cotton like they appear. They are actually made out of plastic, which takes forever to break down in the environment.
The huge problem of littering is the biggest reason why smoking bans have been expanded to include many public beaches and parks. Smokers’ rights people go nuts over outdoor smoking bans, but my attitude is smokers honestly have no one to blame but themselves for the really massive cigarette butt littering problem on beaches and parks. I can find a million links online showing that cigarette butts are far and away the No. 1 trash problem on beaches. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 32 percent of the trash cleaned up on beaches is strictly cigarette butts.
The state earlier this year banned smoking in its state parks, and it considering adding state beaches to that ban (Almost all of Oregon’s beaches are open and free to the public). If people are caught smoking on a beach, they could face a whopping $110 fine.
Smoking bans on beaches drives the smokers rights’ crowd, but there is a logic behind it. Sure, you’re not going to get lung cancer because you’re in the general vicinity of smoke guy smoking on the beach, but anyone who has been involved in beach cleanups will tell you, the No. 1 trash item found on beaches during beach cleanups is cigarette butts. Simply put, there’s no ashtrays out on the beach, so too many smokers end up using the sand as an ashtray. More than 1/3 of the waste cleaned up beaches every year is cigarette butts.
So, looking at that, honestly, it’s impossible for me to feel sorry for smokers who are told they can’t smoke on beaches anymore. Sorry, too many smokers blow it. Even if you’re not one of the bad guys, too many blew it for all of you.