Get Your Butts Off the Beach!

Butts ….  are they Litter? 

Sure we all know that sand is used in ashtrays as a natural fire retardant but does that mean the entire beach is an ashtray?

A number of residents have decidedly said “NO! The beach is not the right place to extinguish and leave cigarette butts like you would in an ashtray.”

One local Boy Scout built and installed cigarette butt receptacles at several Nags Head beach accesses while earning his Eagle Scout badge award. In June of 2015, the First Flight High School student, Bryce Pugh, was recognized by Cliff Ogburn, the town manager of Nags Head for his efforts.

If you’re interested in using one of the Outer Banks beach accesses where his receptacles have been placed, click on any of the following intersecting street names: Bonnett, Bladen, Epstein, Hargrove, and Jennette’s Pier. There you will find full details about each beach access – including maps and lists of amenities.

Bryce Pugh

Bryce Pugh and Nags Head Town Manager Cliff Ogburn stand next to the receptacle he installed at the Bonnett Street public beach access. Photo Outer Banks Voice

And, back to our original question: Are cigarette butts litter?

Some will debate on whether a wee little cigarette butt is really litter. While tiny cigarette butts may not be as visible as food wrappers or empty beer bottles, many still consider it to be littering to leave them on the beach.

We hear cries of, “Butts are biodegradable!” or “The leftover beach chairs and umbrellas are worse than my tiny little cigarette butts!”)


Photo Clean Virginia Waterways

It’s time to separate the myth from facts regarding cigarette butt litter. The biggest myth is that cigarette filters are biodegradable. In fact, cigarette butts are not biodegradable in the sense that most people think of the word. Those white fibers are cellulose acetate, a form of plastic -not cotton or paper. Those plastics take many years to decompose.

Even if the filters were biodegradable, there’s still the issue of toxins that remain inside them. Researchers at the Environmental Protection Agency have found that a single cigarette butt soaked for four days in a liter of water will kill topsmelt fish and fathead minnows in the water. Those species are situated on lower parts of the food chain and are normally very hardy critters!

Social media lights up when folks are asked about the little pieces of cigarette trash. Stories about dogs and children finding still-smoldering cigarettes are not uncommon on our beaches. And as far as safety goes, there are plenty of stories of errant ashes and butts causing fires.


This is what 20 pounds of cigarette butts look like after a beach clean up. Photo Norma Sellers/Surfrider Foundation

How big of a problem is it?

Locally, several beachgoers have taken to social media to complain of stepping on or picking up butts that are still hot (ouch). Or having to prevent their pets or children from trying to eat them (ick). International Coastal Cleanup volunteers estimate that 53 million cigarette butts are picked up each year in the form of litter.

What is being done about it?

Well, like we said, earlier, some enterprising youth like Bryce Pugh are trying to get smokers to clean up after themselves. Also, some community organizations host beach clean-up weekends. There are also many good Samaritans who quote the “leave it better than you found it” motto to explain why they go out and pick up others’ pieces of trash.

Photo Jennifer Steen Booher

When none of the above attempts work, the disposal of cigarette butts gets regulated. And that’s a solution that very few people like. For example, the state of Washington now imposes a $1,025 fine for littering cigarette filters.

So please, enjoy our beaches, but leave them as you found them. Remove all litter, including cigarette butts. Here’s hoping we don’t have to legislate good beach ethics on the Outer Banks. And here’s props to Bryce Pugh!

Top image courtesy Rebecca R Jackrel


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Showing 5 comments
  • lou choates

    I’ve seen ghost crabs taking butts into their holes. Sad to say that more visitors means more trash. Cigatettes are nasty and the sea life has no say so in the matter. You know what they say ” you can take em out of the ……..

  • Wojo

    Look, almost everyone who goes to the beach takes a bottle of water, a can of soda, or beer. All of these serve as great receptacles for butts, if you can take your chair, towel, cigarettes, and matches you can certainly carry something to put your butts in. This is just the epitome of ignorance to assume the beach is an ashtray

  • threedogink

    This is an ingenious idea! 🙂

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