Before I launch into this week’s tirade — because, trust me, that’s what this will be — I would like to point out that I have plenty of friends who smoke, and many of them are even considerate enough to dispose of their cigarette butts in trash cans. I know from watching other smokers fail to do this that it requires a Herculean effort, so I want to applaud my friends who go to such great lengths.
And to those smokers who feel that dropping cigarette butts on the ground is OK, I’d like to ask you a few questions: What makes you believe that’s the case? Do you think that nobody is going to see the butts, or that they’re going to biodegrade so quickly they’ll be gone before we notice them? Or is it just that you’re so cool (or lazy) you can’t be bothered to walk 20 feet to a trash can to do the right thing?
Imagine if everyone had the same attitude about litter that some smokers have — if beer drinkers just dropped their empty cans on the ground, or coffee drinkers threw their styrofoam cups out the windows of their cars. Within months we’d all be buried in our own filth. Sure, smokers can make the argument that cigarette butts are tiny little things, but collectively they add up quickly.
According to some estimates, about 4.5 trillion — 4.5 trillion! — cigarette butts are discarded each year. That works out to billions of cigarette butts every single day. One study done in 1998 determined that American smokers by themselves contributed 176,250,000 pounds of cigarette butt litter to the environment each year. I’m assuming I don’t have to explain how truly and disturbingly repulsive that is.
In the U.S. nearly 20 percent of people over age 15 smoked in 2007. That number is probably higher in Europe and Asia, but I’m sure it’s still much less than a third of the world’s population. So even if we assume that one out of every three people in the world smokes, which is probably not the case, that would mean that the average smoker is responsible for about 2,250 butts a year. I’m sure their lungs are very grateful.
To those who think it’s no big deal because butts are biodegradable, well, you’re wrong. Nearly all cigarette butts are made from cellulose acetate, which breaks down after about a dozen years but never truly biodegrades. In the meantime, all those butts leach nicotine, arsenic, mercury, lead, hydrogen cyanide and lots of other fun poisons into the water supply, killing fish, birds and who knows what else.
Thankfully, though, there may finally be a use for all those discarded butts. Last week, scientists in China announced they had discovered that chemicals extracted from cigarette butts can protect steel pipes from corrosion. Replacing rusting steel pipes is a major ongoing cost for the world’s oil producers, so anything they can do to increase the life span of those pipes is going to be very desirable, not to mention economically feasible.
What this means is that there is now a reason to recycle cigarette butts rather than simply drop them on the ground, and I, for one, think we should move quickly to set up butt recycling bins in as many places as possible. We should probably keep them away from trash cans, as most smokers seem to be repelled by those, but if we put them in lots of other places, maybe we can convince smokers to use them.
The result would be a win-win situation. We’d get butts off the ground, and maybe, just maybe, if we could reduce costs for the oil industry, the price of gas might go down a little. Best of all, those of us who don’t smoke might start having a more favorable view of those of you who do.
Look, I understand why you started smoking; you were a high school loser, and you thought smoking would make you look cool. That’s fine. I’ve often thought of becoming a smoker myself so I could take smoke breaks from work every 20 minutes or so. I don’t blame you for being a smoker, but I definitely blame you for being a litterbug if you drop your butts on the ground.
So now that you finally have some incentive, do everyone a favor and hold on to those butts until you can recycle them. Who knows? Maybe oil companies will even pay you for them some day.