2017, Health & Science

Toronto’s butt problem: Cigarette litter poses environmental risk

This article was originally published on The Toronto Observer.

Mathew Kurlapski, 30, flicks away a cigarette butt on the sidewalk on King Street West, where the nearest garbage bin is out of sight.

“We are standing outside of a shop which sells cigarettes and within 200 yards across the space both sides of the road, there are no trash cans,” Kurlapski says.

The shortage of garbage bins does not bother Kurlapski, who routinely snaps his fingers to flick his filters on the ground.

“I am self-conscious about not littering the street,” he says. “[But] I’m not going to walk about 50 or 60 feet to put a butt in the trash.”

Kurlapski does not enjoy seeing his city strewn with tobacco litter but there is a larger issue at stake than the aesthetic value of cleanliness.

Studies show that cigarette butts or filters contain toxic substances including multiple carcinogens, nicotine and pesticides that harm the environment as they end up in sewers and ultimately into streams, rivers and lakes, threatening marine and human life.

Kurlapski admits that the thought of ecological impact hadn’t occurred to him.

Some smokers also say that they are afraid to dispose off cigarettes in the garbage bin lest they cause a fire.

City’s efforts

City councillor Mike Layton says the city has been making efforts to educate citizens about the problem and to reduce cigarette litter in general.

Most recently in October, the City Council amended bylaws to require businesses such as nightclubs and bars to clean up butts from outside their premises.

“For many years there have been public service campaigns to try to communicate to people that when you throw them (cigarette butts) on the ground, they likely end up in our storm water systems,” Layton says.

“I think people understand that there are certain chemicals within cigarettes that end up in the environment where they threw the cigarette butts or in the water supply.”

City of Toronto spokesperson Pat Barrett says a 2016 summer ad campaign created awareness about the special receptacles for cigarettes built within the city’s garbage bins.

Accessibility to cigarette receptacles has also been addressed by the city with garbage disposal bins increasing to 9,400 in 2016 from 5,630 in 2011.

The city’s efforts notwithstanding, Toronto’s 2014 litter audit shows that cigarette butts are among the most commonly-witnessed waste items on the streets in the small litter category. Preliminary results from the 2016 litter audit are similar.

Finding solutions

Paula Stigler, assistant professor at the University of Texas’s School of Public Health, who has authored papers on eliminating tobacco waste, says some solutions are better than others.

“Anything that involves cleaning up cigarette butts litter is usually what we call a ‘downstream solution,’ by which we mean it’s a constant flow of materials that have to be constantly cleaned up and there is no reduction in the (waste) materials,” she says.

The “upstream solutions” favoured by Stigler and some of her colleagues are geared towards eliminating tobacco waste. They include educating people about the ecological impact of littering (such as through labelling on cigarette packages), advertising with the aim of making improper disposal of butts less socially acceptable; and making the tobacco industry cover the costs of cleaning up waste generated from their products.

One of the approaches favoured by Stigler is to require the tobacco industry to implement take-back programs that reward smokers for returning cigarette filters back to the manufacturing companies — through retailers or other collection channels.

Layton considers take-back programs and labeling requirements for tobacco manufacturers to be “fine propositions,” but says both solutions are outside the purview of the city and would need provincial or federal intervention to be legislated.

Subtle distinction

Interestingly, even as the city has seen a 56 per cent reduction in large litter items such as coffee cups and napkins since 2002, the statistics for small litter show a different story. The city’s data shows that from 2012 to 2014 small litter increased by 46 per cent.

Kurlapski says the difference between a soda can and cigarette butt is the size of the item. While he dutifully disposes of the former, the latter is “seen as insignificant thing” by society.

Stigler points to North American social norms normalizing the distinction.

“It’s unacceptable to throw trash on the street but it’s very acceptable to throw a cigarette butt,” she says. “And it’s the same with enforcement, because it’s still acceptable, even amongst the regulators.”

Although Toronto imposes a $365 fine on littering, data provided by the city on enforcement of dumping and littering bylaws show that only 110 to 180 fines have been imposed each year since 2011.

“It is safe to assume that the majority of these fines are for illegal dumping, and not specific to littering,” City of Toronto spokesperson Tammy Robinson says.

A 2014 staff report on reducing cigarette butt litter acknowledges that enforcement in respect to littering bylaws has been “challenging,” as a municipal officer must witness the violation and then obtain a valid ID from the violator, which citizens are not required to carry.

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