Day #045: It’s time to get serious about cigarette butts.

Why do people who wouldn’t dare throw a banana peel on the ground do so with cigarette butts?

Inspired by Michael Bierut’s 100 Day Project, 100 Days to a Better RVA strives to introduce and investigate unique ideas to improving the city of Richmond. View the entire project here and the intro here.

  • Idea: Start taking cigarette butts seriously.
  • Difficulty: 3 — A patchwork of policies is required to make much progress in this confusing socially accepted norm.

Cigarettes occupy a bizarre place in society on almost every level. Individuals who would never be caught dead throwing a banana peel on the sidewalk don’t think twice about flicking a cigarette butt. The problem: bananas take 3-4 weeks to biodegrade, cigarettes take up to 15 years.

In addition to occupying a weird place somewhere between litter and NBD, there’s a huge misconception that cigarette filters are made from cotton. They are actually made from cellulose acetate. Furthermore, they capture nicotine, ethyl phenol, and arsenic and then leach them into the environment. It’s time to get serious about littering cigarette butts.

Upping the penalties for littering cigarette butts seems like the low-hanging fruit when it comes to solutions for this problem. But if the laws aren’t currently enforced, then there’s little likelihood that increasing the punishments will increase the enforcement.

Maybe public service announcements are the answer. Maybe Jonah Hill saying, “hey this isn’t cool” is what it will take for Joe RVA to say, “this isn’t cool” to his friends.

Greenbutts creates cigarette filters that are not only biodegradable, but they contain seeds that sprout into flowers (although the flower type is unspecified). Even if this product made the leap from niche to wide-apoption, it would still be a stopgap solution. People don’t litter biodegradable food remains. Cigarette butts are a societal phenomena.

Deposits on cigarettes is a common suggestion. Vendors would charge a $0.10 deposit on each cigarette and that money would be refunded upon the return of cigarette the butts. The roughly $2.00 per pack increase would not cause arbitrage because Virginia cigarettes are already so cheap. Deposits on bottles in states like Michigan are fairly successful at encouraging recycling. While I think this idea would be successful, it’s political viability is incredibly low in Richmond.

Extended producer responsibility (EPR) is similar to deposits but it puts the burden on manufacturers. Often in the form of reuse or buyback programs, it controls dangerous waste. In this country, it’s used on products like tires, car batteries, and computer parts. The problem is, car batteries and tires are consumed in realizable sums. Over 5 trillion cigarettes are consumed annually in the world.

The most viable solution would be further limiting the locations where smoking is legal while increasing equipment for the proper disposal of cigarettes. A ban on smoking in all city parks and around the river could make progress. VCU currently creates some restrictions such as no smoking within 50 feet of the library. VCU should implement a ban on smoking across the easily distinguishable parts of campus. This has happened all across the country. Eastern Virginia Medical School, Jefferson College of Health and Sciences, and Regent University are the only colleges in Virginia that have such policies.

Surprisingly, Richmond Public Schools doesn’t have a comprehensive tobacco ban. Students are banned from possessing or consuming tobacco, but staff have no restrictions. Chesterfield County, Hanover County, and Henrico County all have tobacco bans on school property. Limiting legal smoking locations would increase the proximity of smokers to containers and confine the areas dealing with litter.

Littering cigarette butts is a serious problem in Richmond. For inexplicable reasons we are desensitized to the act. No single solution will solve the entire problem, but we have an obligation to patch together ideas to make some progress. Obviously, quitting smoking is the best solution for Richmond, but in the meantime we need to make progress on ridding our streets, our public spaces, and our environment of a hazardous and unappealing waste.

Love this idea? Think it’s terrible? Have one that’s ten times better? Head over to the 100 Days to a Better RVA Facebook page and join in the conversation.

Photo by: Axolot

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Aaron Williams

Aaron Williams loves music, basketball (follow @rvaramnews!), family, learning, and barbecue sauce.

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