On a recent morning in Oakland’s Dimond district, ten residents dressed in neon vests gathered in the parking lot of Giant Burger on MacArthur Boulevard for their weekly ritual. As the sun came up over the storefronts, they set to work, armed with trash bags, brooms, and litter pickers — each person on the hunt for illegal dump sites, plastic wrappers, bottle caps, Styrofoam, and cigarette butts. Each year, the group picks up about 12,000 pounds of trash from a six-block area. These volunteers — mostly local residents and shopkeepers — know a lot about litter. And they’re incensed about one particularly bothersome type of trash: cigarette butts.
“I hate them!” declared Zandile Christian, an otherwise cheerful woman who leads the Saturday cleanup.
“It’s just ridiculous,” added David Coleman, another volunteer. “The problem I find with cigarettes is that all parts of the packaging is litter: You take the cellophane off, drop it, and when the pack’s empty, you drop that, too.”
Stan Dodson, who is the manager of La Farine French Bakery on Fruitvale Avenue and helped found the weekly cleanup, noted that the Dimond district is a transit hub. At least fourteen AC Transit bus lines converge on the neighborhood, and Dodson said the bus stops are “litter magnets.” He said the group is doing what it can to manage the trash, but with thousands of commuters traveling through the area each week, the challenge is immense. “Just this morning I was sweeping outside the bakery, and I swept up twenty cigarette butts,” he said. “By far the most litter was cigarette butts. People just throw them right in the storm drain like it’s their ashtray.”
Despite the group’s best efforts, cigarette litter keeps showing up on the streets, stuffed in sidewalk cracks or scattered like little bones on the blacktop. The volunteers clean up what they can, but winter rains will likely wash leftover butts and other small pieces of trash into the city’s storm drains, which, like most local systems, flow directly into San Francisco Bay.
Although small and often overlooked, cigarette litter is a potent source of pollution in the bay and other coastal waters. Cigarette filters are made of plastic that does not biodegrade, and discarded butts are full of toxins that have the potential to poison water and harm wildlife.
In response to the numerous hazards associated with cigarette filters, the Oakland-based environmental group Save The Bay has launched a new campaign to keep them from polluting local watersheds and coastal waters. Save The Bay, which helped spearhead the successful effort to ban single-use plastic bags in the region, recently backed a strict ban on most outdoor smoking in El Cerrito, and is pushing Berkeley to enforce a similar ordinance already on the books. Save The Bay representatives say the want a “butt-free bay” — and soon.
This burgeoning backlash against cigarette litter also represents a new front in the decades-long war on smoking. Rather than emphasizing the harmful effects of smoking on human health, Save The Bay’s campaign and others like it are focusing on the dangers that cigarettes pose to water quality and fragile marine ecosystems. And it’s not just a local issue. Some scientists and state lawmakers have called for a ban on filtered cigarettes across California, citing the environmental damage they cause. These advocates, scientists, and politicians hope that cigarette filters will ultimately meet the same fate as the single-use plastic bag.
But they face an uphill fight. The plastic bag industry spent millions on its failed effort to defeat a state ban, and Big Tobacco can be expected to unleash an even larger torrent of money to combat those who would limit its profits.
In California, the war on smoking has enjoyed considerable success. Perhaps the most important milestone was the passage in 1988 of Proposition 99, which added a 25- cent tax to cigarette packs and dedicated one fifth of the revenue to the state’s tobacco control program. Since then, according to the California Department of Public Health, the number of cigarettes smoked by Californians has dropped by 62 percent. When the program began, one in five adults in the state smoked. Today, one in eight do.
Bans on smoking in bars, restaurants, and public places have also contributed to the decline in cigarette consumption. Cigarette smoking also has lost much of its social prestige over the years.
Nonetheless, California still has more than 3.5 million smokers, and the impact on public health remains considerable.
However, public awareness about the environmental problems that cigarettes cause is beginning to grow.
Cigarette butts are the most ubiquitous type of litter in the Bay Area, according to scientists, advocates, and government officials. Save The Bay estimates that 3 billion cigarettes are littered each year in the region. Thomas Novotny, a professor at San Diego State University and an expert on tobacco pollution, said the Bay Area’s 7 million-plus residents smoke roughly 4.76 billion cigarettes a year, and studies suggest that between one-third and two-thirds of all cigarettes end up as litter.
No one knows exactly how many cigarette filters make it into the water, but it’s a lot. “I would say hundreds of thousands — no millions — of cigarette butts are flowing down the storm drain systems into creeks and the bay each year,” said Dale Bowyer of the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Board.
Eben Schwartz, the California Coastal Commission’s marine debris program manager, said cigarette butts make up at least 40 percent of the litter picked up each year during the state’s coastal cleanup day. “There is a lot of misinformation about cigarette butts out there — a belief that they are small and harmless,” Schwartz said. “But they are an enormous problem in this state, in this country, and around the world.”
At the national level, the Cigarette Litter Prevention Program, a project of Keeping America Beautiful, estimates that tobacco products comprise 38 percent of all litter on US streets and highways. And the Ocean Conservancy, which organizes hundreds of coastal cleanups around the world each year, consistently reports that cigarette butts are the most common type of trash found along the world’s shorelines.
A 2012 report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration asserted that many marine animals mistake small plastic — such as cigarette butts — for food, and choke on the plastic or starve to death because they can’t digest it.
But the massive number of littered cigarettes is only one aspect of the problem.
Cigarette butts are toxic, and some scientists say that smoked cigarette filters are full of chemicals that have the potential to harm wildlife and contaminate ecosystems. “A cigarette filter is like a tea bag,” explained Novotny. “It has absorbed all the toxic substances that the smoker has pulled through the filter and concentrated them.”
When filters are exposed to water, he said, they leach their concentrated toxins, including heavy metals, into the environment. Nicotine, which gives cigarettes their addictive quality, is acutely toxic to humans and animals and was used for years as a pesticide. Heavy metals found in cigarettes include cadmium and lead, both of which are poisonous to mammals.
Novotny’s colleague Richard Gersberg conducted a laboratory study at San Diego State University that highlighted the dangers cigarette butts pose to marine ecosystems like San Francisco Bay. He placed small fish in water with differing quantities of tobacco waste and the results were deeply troubling. Gersberg and his team found that the chemicals in a single filtered cigarette butt were able to kill half the fish in a one-liter container of water.
Save The Bay representatives often point to this study as evidence that cigarettes butts are likely killing fish. “This is the emerging evil around smoking,” said Allison Chan, a Save The Bay organizer. “Everyone knows it is a public health evil, but only in the last few years, because of research, have we realized how harmful it is to the environment.”
But cigarette filters and the toxic trash problems they create have not always been with us. Unfiltered cigarettes were the norm until the 1950s, when tobacco companies ramped up filtered cigarette production in an attempt to address the growing health scare that was enveloping cigarette smoking.
In their initial experiments, tobacco companies made filters out of several different products — including, charcoal, cork, and even asbestos — but eventually settled on cellulose acetate, a cheap spongy plastic that looks and feels like cotton. The Eastman Chemical Company, which spun off from Eastman Kodak in 1994, has long been one of the world’s leading manufacturers of this fibrous plastic.
Filters quickly became a powerful advertising tool in an era when people thought new technology could solve every health problem. Tobacco companies called filters a “miracle product,” “just what the doctor ordered,” and “entirely pure and harmless to health,” according to Robert Proctor, a professor of history at Stanford University, in his scathing book about the tobacco industry, Golden Holocaust.
But Big Tobacco’s claims about the power of filters never squared with reality. Proctor argues in his book that cellulose acetate filters are a “gimmick” and a “fraud.” “Filters were put on the ends of cigarettes for three principal reasons,” he writes, “to lower the cost of manufacturing, to keep tobacco bits from entering the mouths of smokers, and to lure people into thinking that brand Alpha, Beta or Gamma was somehow safer.”
Although filters prevent some quantity of carcinogens from entering a smoker’s lungs, Proctor’s graduate student, Bradford Harris, who has studied the early history of cigarettes, said in an interview that “overwhelming data suggest that filters are ineffective.”
Novotny of San Diego State University agrees. Cigarette filters are “a defective product,” he said. “Over the years it has been pretty clear that the risk for cancer has not gone down, and in some cases cancers have increased because when people have a filter on their cigarettes they inhale more deeply.”
Moreover, since the Fifties, cigarette filters have been filling creeks, bays, and oceans with plastic trash that doesn’t go away.
Many Bay Area cities have a trash problem, and in 2009 they were put on notice by a higher power. That year, the Bay Area Regional Water Quality Control Board, using its authority under state law and the federal Clean Water Act, issued a mandate to all major cities in the region: By 2022, they must eliminate 100 percent of the trash in their stormwater systems, or risk fines and other penalties.
As municipal decision-makers strive to meet that requirement, Chan and her colleagues at Save The Bay see an opportunity to thrust the long-ignored problem of cigarette litter into the spotlight. Their campaign has started small, focusing first on El Cerrito and Berkeley. But it is drawing its inspiration, at least in part, from bolder efforts at the state level, where Assemblymember Mark Stone has been making a lot of noise about cigarette litter.
Last January, Stone, a Democrat whose district includes the coastal cities along Monterey Bay, including Santa Cruz and the City of Monterey, introduced a bill — AB 1504 — that sought to ban single-use tobacco filters statewide. “With the plastic bag ban gaining some momentum in the last legislative session, I wanted to tackle the most ubiquitous kind of plastic trash there is,” Stone said in an interview. He added that filters are an unnecessary product because they offer “no net health benefit whatsoever.”
AB 1504, however, never made it out of the Assembly’s Committee on Governmental Organization, to which it had been assigned, because several of Stone’s Democratic colleagues voted against it. Stone said that Big Tobacco’s influence in Sacramento is substantial, and that many Democrats no longer view contributions from the industry as being taboo.
Campaign finance records show that the committee’s chair, Isadore Hall, III, a Democrat from of Los Angeles, received $8,200 in campaign contributions last year from a subsidiary of Altria Group, which was formerly named Phillip Morris Company and is one of the world’s largest tobacco companies. Hall voted against AB 1504. “There’s more cigarette money being spent in Sacramento than there has been in decades,” Stone said.
Altria, in fact, is one of the biggest political spenders in California. According to Influence Explorer, a website that compiles campaign finance data, Altria spent at least $32 million in 2012 to defeat Proposition 29, which would have added a $1 tax to cigarette packs in California. In 2006, the company spent more than $35 million to defeat a similar proposition. And between January 2013 and June 2014, the tobacco industry spent more than $2.2 million lobbying legislators in Sacramento, according to a report by the American Lung Association.
Joseph Lang, one of the cigarette industry’s top lobbyists in Sacramento, did not respond to requests for comment for this story. Altria officials declined to comment.
Stone said he plans to reintroduce his cigarette filter ban legislation in the Assembly next year. In the meantime, he hopes filters will follow a trajectory similar to single-use plastic bags. In the case of plastic bags, municipalities across the state had to enact local bans on them before a statewide prohibition stood any chance of getting through the legislature.
Last month, Save The Bay’s campaign against cigarette filters won a victory in El Cerrito. On October 7, the El Cerrito City Council unanimously passed an outdoor smoking ordinance that was perhaps the most comprehensive such law in California. Even sidewalks are now off-limits to smoking.
“The less people smoking outside, the less cigarette butt litter there will be,” Save The Bay organizer Chan noted. “As you make smoking more difficult for people, fewer people smoke.”
Although the main objective of the El Cerrito measure was to protect human health, Suzanne Iarla, a city spokesperson, said that “in doing research on the matter, litter from butts came up a number of times, both for their impact on our commercial corridors and because they wash into storm drains and pollute the bay.”
Environmental activists say outdoor smoking regulations, like El Cerrito’s new law, play an important role in the war on smoking, but they say enforcement of and public education about such laws are just as important. Berkeley, for instance, has a strong anti-outdoor smoking law that bans smoking in commercial corridors in the city. It also bans smoking at bus stops and within 25 feet of most public buildings and other locations. But the city has not made enforcement of its ban a priority.
In 2013, the Berkeley Police Department issued 362 smoking citations — about one per day — mostly along Shattuck Avenue and at other trash hot spots. Yet cigarette butts are all over the city’s streets, and Byron White, an officer at the Berkeley Police Department, acknowledged that enforcement of the city’s ordinance “lies toward the bottom of the priority list.”
Save The Bay hopes to change that. This fall, it placed eight ads on bus stops throughout Berkeley. “Cigarette butts are toxic plastic trash that end up in the bay,” the signs read. “It’s illegal to smoke here.”
The group also presented a petition with nearly three hundred signatures to city decision-makers asking the city to make cigarette litter abatement more than just an afterthought. And Berkeley responded. Chan is currently in discussions with city staffers to figure out ways to more aggressively inform citizens, enforce laws, and clean up after smokers.
And if Save The Bay can help solve the problem in Berkeley and El Cerrito — if it can show that outdoor smoking restrictions coupled with robust enforcement actually reduce the number of cigarettes washing through storm drains and into the bay — then the group plans to move into more challenging locales, like Oakland.
“Tackling the issue in Oakland,” said Chan, “will require a huge effort.”
Although Oakland has an outdoor smoking ordinance, it is not nearly as stringent as El Cerrito’s new rules. And, as in Berkeley, enforcement is not a top priority. Other challenges, such as illegal dumping, take precedence over cigarette litter enforcement, according to Kristine Shaff, a spokesperson for Oakland’s Public Works department.
Still, the city must meet the 100-percent-reduction-in-trash mandate from the Bay Area Regional Water Quality Control Board. To that end, the city has installed more than twenty trash capture devices throughout Oakland. The equipment, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to purchase and install, strains trash out of stormwater before it flows into creeks and channels. However, the devices only capture trash from a relatively small portion of the city — about 1,000 acres (the city’s total land acreage is about 37,000).
Shaff said Oakland plans to spend more than $12 million this year to run the rest of its litter abatement program, including street sweeping efforts and illegal dumping cleanup.
“As the City of Oakland starts to get a better handle on its trash problem, it will be important to pay attention to some of these problematic pollutants,” Chan said. “Cigarette butts are not like every other type of litter. They are toxic.”
Back in the Dimond district, the trash cleanup ended as it began.
Volunteers returned to the Giant Burger parking lot, carrying their trash bags and chatting about litter control. One volunteer, Jeff Kirschner, talked about his online start-up, Litterati, which tries to get people to use their Instagram accounts to catalog the type and location of litter around the world. Another, Zandile Christian, handed out gift cards for free pastries and drinks at the bakery that Stan Dodson runs nearby. She wants to make sure people keep coming out for the cleanup, because by the following week, the trash will be out of control again.
Volunteer efforts like these are a crucial component of Oakland’s overall trash strategy. But when it comes to cigarette butts, some scientists, such as Novotny of San Diego State University, say dealing with the problem should not fall on citizens or even cities, but rather Big Tobacco. The law, he said, ought to require Altria and its fellow manufacturers to handle and dispose of the toxic trash that they produce, as it does for paint companies.
“I would like to see the tobacco industry being held responsible,” he said. “They make this terrible product, this filter, which is basically just a marketing tool, and somebody else has to clean it up.”
The other alternative, of course, is to ban filters altogether.