July 24, 2012 | Back to: News

Lake Tahoe hates beach butts (and it cannot lie)

INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. — Breathe in. Fill your lungs with clean, crisp alpine air. Exhale and appreciate the pristine environment that provides such clean air. It's a beautiful day in Tahoe; paradise.

Breathe in again, ah ... the glorious air — wait, do you smell smoke? From a stove? Or forest fire? No, no, it's drifting off a cigarette being smoked nearby.

We have all heard of the negative health effects of tobacco use and cigarette smoke; but what about the impacts on the environment? If you look around Tahoe, it won't take you long to find a cigarette butt hastily tossed aside. Have you ever taken a moment to walk a path near town and noticed how many cigarette butts persist, scattered on the sidewalk and along embankments?

Besides the incredible fire risk cigarette butts pose, what you might not know is that cigarette butts littered on the ground are toxic waste, which can dramatically affect Tahoe's fragile ecosystems.

But it's so small! How can a cigarette butt possibly have any consequences? Easy enough to crush it under foot or flick it toward the nearest stump. The chemical ingredients that are compounded in cigarettes are trapped in the filter as it is smoked; if that filter is littered, the chemicals present in it will eventually be transferred to the environment.

Eventually, those butts end up in the lake, or in the tummies of little animals. Neither fate is appropriate; yet each year, according to statistics, more than 4.5 trillion cigarettes are scattered around the globe. And Tahoe is no exception; during a community clean-up recently, more than 600 butts were collected in a single block, not to mention those found along the stream banks and on the beaches.

It's a common misconception that cigarette butts aren't harmful, that they biodegrade and are insignificant. The truth is that cigarette butts are the No. 1 form of litter in the world, according to online reports, they never biodegrade and all those tiny filters and the trapped chemicals they hold add up to major chemical loads on the environment.

Furthermore, the knowledge that 65 percent of cigarettes smoked become litter points to a major environmental issue.

So what can a smoker do? Smokers can start with a huge, simple act: Properly dispose of all cigarette butts.

• Cigarettes are the No. 1 item littered in the world, according to online reports. It's estimated 1.7 billion pounds of cigarette butts annually pollute the world's waterways, delivering nicotine, heavy metals, benzene and other carcinogens, along with plastic fibers, into the water supply. Thirty-five percent of all litter is in the form of a tobacco product.

• Cigarette Butts are not biodegradable. The cotton-like filters are actually made of cellulose acetate tow — a petroleum product that persists in the environment indefinitely. Ninety-five percent of cigarette filters never biodegrade. The plastic elements never actually biodegrade, they only become smaller particles that can be ingested by animals and humans if present in water sources.

• The non-plastic components in cigarette butts take 15 years to break down, and as they do, they release petrochemicals and other toxins.

• Cigarette litter causes numerous fires every year. Without action against this litter, our community is exposed to potential property damage and loss of forest land.

• When cigarettes are littered, they typically end up in water supplies, and the toxic chemicals trapped in the filter dissolve into the water and endanger aquatic ecosystems and water quality. Potent chemicals present and released in butts include benzopryene, formaldehyde (both carcinogens), arsenic, lead, acetone, tolunene, cadmium, nicotine, benzene (all poisons), butane and ammonia (hazardous waste).

• Nicotine seeps into waterways; it is toxic. In small amounts nicotine works as a stimulant, but when taken in large doses nicotine is poisonous to both humans and animals.

So please, don't use public spaces as an ashtray. By leaving cigarette butts anywhere on the ground (instead of in an proper receptacle) they get can washed into streams, which adds to the pollution of the Lake Tahoe, our community's greatest natural resource. Butts are often eaten by fish, birds or small animals, which cause premature death for these creatures.

The problem isn't whether or not one chooses to smoke, but whether that individual assumes responsibility to be a conscientious smoker who will never deposit cigarette butts on the ground. This is opportunity for positive action. It may seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but the choice is one of massive consequence.

If you smoke, please don't litter, and encourage others not to litter. If you see someone littering, educate that person and use it as a gentle teaching moment. Don't judge or condemn, because quite often smokers don't realize that cigarette butts create such problems.

Emily Griffith
Special to the Bonanza

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Tahoe Daily Tribune Updated Jul 25, 2012 08:15PM Published Jul 24, 2012 05:30PM Copyright 2012 Tahoe Daily Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.