Butt out

G Magazine

Sick of seeing gutters and streets littered with butts, John Dee takes litterbug smokers to task.


Credit: sxc.hu

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I recently found myself walking along the Yarra River. Instead of being a pleasant experience, I was stunned by the amount of litter that had been washed up by the Victorian floods. Tree branches along the river were full of plastic bags and thousands of plastic drink bottles lined the banks. It was an awful sight.

As I walked out of the Flinders Street train terminal that day, I paused to look down at my feet. Everywhere I looked there were cigarette butts. People were getting straight off the trains, having a smoke and dropping their butts on the ground. Within a short radius of the station, there were thousands of butts littering the streets.

Out of the 24 billion cigarettes that Australians smoke every year, an estimated 7 billion of them end up as litter. In both the marine environment and on land, the impact that these butts have is significant. Over the years, I’ve lost count of the times that I’ve read about property damage, livestock losses, deaths and the loss of native habitat that’s resulted from fires caused by cigarette butts.

Many of the thousands of fires that occur are the result of people throwing butts out of car windows. A 2003 survey carried out with the NSW Fire Brigade showed how bad the problem was. Over a three week period, 426 cigarette butts were collected in a small 60 square metre median strip alone. Reduced fire risk cigarettes were introduced in Australia in 2010, but as the ACCC points out: “Reduced fire risk cigarettes can still cause fires.”

Cigarette butts are designed to prevent toxic chemicals from reaching your lungs. So when these toxic pellets get into the marine environment, they leach chemicals such as lead, cadmium, arsenic and zinc. All too often, they also end up in the stomachs of marine creatures who mistake the butts for food.

According to Clean Up Australia, cigarette butts can take up to 12 months to break down in fresh water and up to five years in in sea water. With trillions of butts being smoked around the world, the accumulated impact on our global environment is significant.

As ratepayers, we end up footing the bill when councils clean up this avoidable mess. Cigarette butt and cigarette packet littering spoil the amenity of a place and attracts more litter. Researchers have spoken to smokers who drop their butts and have found that many of them don’t view their actions as littering. Their littering is often a thoughtless unconscious act.

The main problem that we face is the poor enforcement of Australia’s litter laws. Although billions of butts are littered, the number of fines are in the thousands. There is simply no point in having these litter laws if they’re not enforced.

The solution is twofold. Firstly, smokers need to be fined $400 on the spot with no excuses accepted. The other solution is for smokers to put their butts into a bin or a butt container. If dog owners can get into the habit of picking up dog poo, then there’s no reason why smokers can’t get into the habit of using ashtrays and bins.

As long as we fail to implement our litter laws, irresponsible smokers will continue to treat the world like one big ashtray. Implementing $400 fines is the only way to put a stop to this. Smoking may be a habit that’s hard to break, but illegal butt littering is a problem that has to be stamped out once and for all.

Jon Dee is the founder of Do Something! www.dosomething.net.au. Follow him at www.twitter.com/jondeeoz.