A Cigarette Butt – Just One Little Piece of Trash

 In Beach Smarts

When teeny tiny cigarette butts make headlines in many ways, it becomes obvious that these little bits of trash are causing big problems.
Consider these newsmakers:

  • The Kill Devil Hills Community Appearance Commission subcommittee devoted an entire meeting in May to preventing and cleaning up cigarette butts on the beach.
  • Also in May, a cigarette butt placed in a plastic flower planter in downtown Manteo caused a nighttime patio fire that spread to the siding of the building.
  • The aquarium on Roanoke Island started a campaign in March with cigarette butt collection bins. The butts are sent to Terracycle, a company that separates the compostable tobacco from the filters. The latter are turned into plastic pellets for recycling.
  • One local Boy Scout built and installed cigarette butt receptacles at several Nags Head beach accesses while earning his Eagle Scout badge award. The First Flight High School student, Bryce Pugh, was recognized by Nags Head Town Manager Cliff Ogburn for his efforts.


cigarette butts

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

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. The ones that fly out of car windows are especially hazardous as they scatter to dry dune grasses or flicker their way to predominantly wooden houses built oh-so-closely together.

“It will just disintegrate”

We hear cries of, “But cigarette butts are biodegradable!”

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!

Photo courtesy wakeupanddance.com

But is it litter?

Some will debate on whether a cigarette butt is really litter. They will argue, “The leftover beach chairs and umbrellas are worse than my little cigarette butts!” And yes, those are being attacked also, but that’s another story.

While 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.

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

What is being done about it?

Remember Kill Devil Hills’s Appearance Commission meeting mentioned at the start of this article? They briefly discussed prohibiting smoking on the beach entirely, and it’s a measure that is not off the table yet. For now, the subcommittee is considering a PR and education campaign before resorting to more draconian measures.

cigarette butts

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

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).

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.  International Coastal Cleanup volunteers estimate that 53 million cigarette butts are picked up from beaches in the form of litter.

Homeowners of rental cottages are wisely providing ‘butt buckets’ or ‘butt bowls’ on their porches, driveways, and pool sides that are prefilled with sand to encourage smart disposal methods.

“I just put a little sand and water in my first empty, and I’m good to go,” says Tony, a diehard beachgoer and smoker who uses an empty can as his disposable ashtray for the day.

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.

Top feature image courtesy Blue Moon Beach Grill.

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Showing 6 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

  • Barak

    “leave it better than you found it”
    I think most of us practice this wherever we are, but others never do.
    A co-worker once shared a story of a particular time when he visited a Starbucks.
    One smoker simply dropped his lit butt on the ground, next to a cigarette receptacle, before entering the restaurant. Since the co-worker witnessed this person’s arrival and saw that his car window was slightly rolled-down, he sarcastically concluded that the butt was accidentally dropped … being a good neighbor, he then placed the smoldering butt into the car window. You can imagine the surprise when the butt-dropper returned to a car with a smoky interior.
    What’s the moral lesson of the story? Don’t be a butt and we no one will be a butt towards you.

  • threedogink

    This is an ingenious idea! 🙂

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