Opinion | Susan Knopf: Put those butts where they belong
Don’t do it. Please just save my aching back, and don’t do it.
I bend over again and pick up another one, thankful for my gloves, and my mind wanders. I think of a classic movie scene. Our hero pulls to the side of the road, gets out of his car and lights up. He ponders what Jack Handey of “Saturday Night Live” fame would call “deep thoughts.” Then he stubs out his cigarette, hops in the car and drives off.
What that magical cinema-graphic moment doesn’t show is me. Me with the orange bag, picking up the trash along Colorado Highway 9 in front of Sierra Bosque. The single most ubiquitous item I retrieved: cigarette butts. I was really pleased. I didn’t find a single fast-food wrapper, just one Starbucks lid, a couple of straws and one broken piece of plastic cutlery. But there must have been hundreds of cigarette butts. My husband, who was cleaning the opposite side of the road, reported the same finding.
Our cleanup project was a part of a larger countywide effort. We picked up trash with Friends of the Lower Blue River. Sierra Club also was busy scouring the roads and picking up trash.
Summit County isn’t the only place cigarette butts are turning up. It’s the most frequently collected item in beach cleanups. In 2018, the International Coastal Cleanup reported the No. 1 item picked up was cigarette butts, more than 2 million. Cigarette butts make up 25% to 50% of the haul from roadside cleanups.
Let’s just put aside the obvious, cigarettes are bad for you and killed my mother and grandmother. Cigarettes tossed from car windows can start fires, and for the past six or seven years, we’ve had pretty acute drought conditions. It was a serious concern contributing to the cancellation of our fireworks. That’s serious!
Throwing a cigarette out of a moving car can cause a wildfire. Can you just keep that butt to yourself? And that means when you stub it out, you take it with you, like dog owners do with a poopy bag. I really don’t want to walk into a professional building, like I did today, and find butts tossed into the garden.
Cigarette butts, contrary to wide misapprehension, are not biodegradable. The butt of a cigarette, the filter, is made of a type of plasticized cellulose acetate. Scientific studies show that it will degrade in most environments but too slowly to be considered biodegradable. And when it does degrade, it releases toxic material into the environment. In other words, a cigarette tossed last September was still on the road, and I had to pick it up this June. What happens to it in between is bad news for the environment and wildlife.
According an internationally peer-reviewed journal, “When carelessly discarded by smokers, (butts) are carried from storm sewers and beaches to streams and waterways leading directly to the aquatic environment. Infants, as well as many sea creatures, birds and pets are indiscriminate eaters, and ingested plastic trash, including cigarette butts, can choke an animal or poison it with toxins.”
So like I said, keep your butt to yourself, and save my aching back. Better yet, quit smoking. You’ll save our environment and your life.
Susan Knopf is a Summit County resident who writes a weekly column for the Summit Daily.
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