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Having the Environmental Conversation: I Didn’t Think It Started Here

2010 August 9

By Blaine Collison

Seventeenth Street in Washington, DC, where it crosses the National Mall, is one of the prettiest streets in America. Stand in the middle of 17th and turn one full revolution and you’ll see the Washington Monument, the Jefferson Memorial, the World War II Memorial, the White House and stands of trees all in between. On a summer evening – like tonight – the area is full of tourists and locals, all out enjoying the Nation’s Capital.

I was commuting home on my bike – my colleagues and I appreciate EPA’s bike facilities every single day that we use them – and I followed a car down 17th Street, across the National Mall. The passenger stuck his hand out of the window and I could see a nearly-finished cigarette. I got a bad feeling about what was going to happen: Sure enough, the passenger dropped his butt onto the street right between the Monument and World War II Memorial.

I’ve seen this plenty of times before, but lately I’ve grown tired of resigned acceptance. I caught up to the car at the next light and had a conversation that went like this:

Hi. You dropped your cigarette on the street.

What? No.

Yes, you did.


You dropped it right there on 17th Street at the light. By the World War II Memorial.

So what?

Well…why? That’s not where it goes.


That’s not where it goes. No one wants your trash on our streets. Why’d you put it there? Why not just put it in the trash?

That’s where I [colorful adverb] put it!

Yeah, but why? It’s just going to go into the [Potomac] river.

‘Cause that’s where I [repeated colorful adverb] put it!

But no one wants your trash on the street.

Well, clean up the [adjective form of the previously-used colorful adverb] street!

It would be easier to do that if you wouldn’t drop cigarette butts on it.

The light changed and the exchange ended. No one had called each other a name or made a threat, but it also didn’t seem like anyone had made any progress.

One of EPA Administrator Jackson’s key strategic priorities is “Expanding the Conversation”; bringing into the environmental protection process people and stakeholders that have not traditionally been part of it. I’m pretty sure that I had a conversation tonight with one of those folks. Not dropping trash on the street is more basic even than Environmentalism 101. And this was the National Mall. It’s sacred American public space. That we need to have a conversation at this level…

I’m still frustrated and amazed by this. But tomorrow, I’m going to try a little harder. And I’m going to reach out a little further.

No more butts on the National Mall, please. It’s simply not acceptable. Demand better of ourselves and each other. Now and every single day that follows.

About the author: Blaine Collison is the Director of the Green Power Partnership, EPA’s national voluntary green electricity program. The GPP includes more than 1,200 organizations that actively engaged in expanding the conversation and creating more U.S. renewable energy.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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17 Responses leave one →
  1. Richard Sumpter permalink
    August 9, 2010

    You begin to touch on something that I have been thinking about since the Administrator published her priorities. Not only do we need to expand the environmental conversation in a way that expands the audience (which you gratefully did), but I also think the priority should be re stated to include expanding the content of the MESSAGE as well. It should become (like a branding exercise) customary for the conversation to cover stewardship and sustainability in a much more explicit way. I also believe we should be more forthcoming in our appeal to environmental ethics (I teach ethics at a local college). I don’t primarily mean we should use “faith based” ethics (though that might expand the audience to faith-based groups). There is an ethic that simply derives from the duties we incur by being citizens of the planet. Our role as a regulatory agency leaves us pretty much with a stick as the main tool in our box. We don’t have many carrots. So I believe we need to begin to appeal to a deontological principle that all of us are subject tol, whether we accept it or not.
    Anyway, thanks for engaging the guy.

  2. Erin permalink
    August 9, 2010

    Litter awareness in general is often a constant battle. In Texas, the Department of Transportation provides a “Report A Litterer” program under the “Don’t mess with Texas” campaign ( It is a great way to remind Texans to put their trash where it belongs, without direct conflict. Simply report the litterer’s license plate and a few details on what was tossed. They will receive a friendly notice saying they were spotted littering. I am sure other states have similar programs to help jump start that basic environmental conversation.

  3. Joan permalink
    August 9, 2010

    I enjoyed this post very much because it touched on how simple it is to make changes for the better (like not dropping litter)…and how hard those simple changes can be.
    And thanks for the reminder that we need to expect better behaviour from each other and ourselves. We deserve it!

  4. Lina-EPA permalink*
    August 9, 2010

    I loved it! Yes, every little step counts. We should all be responsible for our environent. Keep on blogging.

  5. swan permalink
    August 9, 2010

    I enjoyed this post very much because it touched on how simple it is to make changes for the better life.

  6. amy lindsay permalink
    August 10, 2010

    spot on we should raise awareness of our environment
    i will sure share this with my colleagues

  7. Michael E. Bailey permalink
    August 10, 2010

    This was a great article because it shows that just doing simple little things can mean a lot to keeping our rivers, creeks, steams, lakes, and coasts clean. The chehmicals in one cigarette butt going into a stream can pollute enough liters of water to kill marine life. And all the trash carelessly tossed on the roads and sidewalks eventually finds its way through the gutters and the storm drain system into our rivers and creeks increasing the water pollution. An other thing to consider is the importance of having clean drinking water which in alot of places comes from rivers and streams. Some people have for too long thought of drinking water as a commodity to be bought and sold and that if people got behind on their water bills they should be cut off. This is changing. On July 26, the UN General Assembly voted for the first time to adopt a resolution recognizing the human right to drinking water and sanitation. This means clean and safe water for drinking is now recognized as a basic human right, making control of street litter even more impohrtant, especially things like cigarette butts and used containers like oil and anti-freeze containers. And now it is even more important to get the word out to local water agencies that people should not be completely cut off for inability to pay. When a basic water requirement necessary to sustain life cannot be paid for by individuals for reasons of poverty, emergency, or circumstance, it is still the responsibility of local communities, local governments, or national governments to provide that basic water requirement through subsidies. Best wishes, Michael E. Bailey.

  8. Chris permalink
    August 10, 2010

    If everyone switched to electronic cigarettes the amount of deaths in the US would be reduced from 400,000 to about 4,000. Nicotine is as harmless as caffeine. The cigarette butts would be gone and the air cleaner. Really no reason not to.
    Even our president now has his own electronic cigarette given to him by the Wendy Williams show for his birthday.

    Personally I like my ecig. It’s the best in my opinion.

  9. GMike permalink
    August 11, 2010

    Blaine – thanks for taking the risk of talking to these folks. It drives me crazy to pull up to a traffic light and there are thousands of butts littering the median. I had a bike wreck because of a flying butt. Please folks – littering hurts !!

  10. LLL permalink
    August 11, 2010

    “Every year smokers toss away over four trillion cigarette butts, fouling the environment terribly. But recently a few Chinese scientists embarked on the seemingly impossible project of finding value in this noxious waste. Collecting up big piles of discarded filters, they developed a process to extract chemicals that are effective at preventing corrosion when applied to steel pipes. Your assignment, Pisces, is to accomplish a comparable miracle: Turn some dreck or dross into a useful thing; discover a blessing in the trash; build a new dream using the ruins of an old pleasure.”

  11. tricia permalink
    August 11, 2010

    along with, The flouride, pesticides and gmo’s have got to go.

  12. Decleor permalink
    August 12, 2010

    It’s hard to believe that people would have such an unhelpful and selfish attitude as that smoker!

  13. Jacob permalink
    August 12, 2010

    Its not just the National Mall that we should be taking care of. Honestly, the amount of disgusting cigarettes that litter the streets in nearly every city in America is disturbing. For one the obvious litter is an issue. The other issue is that all of that cigarette smoke goes into the air (it does not just disappear). How much pollutants and toxins go into the air from one city of smokers? One state? One country? That’s a lot of toxins that are going into the air. Factories just make their smoking obvious. We should be conscious of all the action we make and how they affect the environment.

  14. Rachel permalink
    August 15, 2010

    It kills me that smokers for some crazy reason don’t think that butts are garbage or litter! I have done the same many times and confronted the smoker trying to educate them that they just tossed litter on the ground only to be met with much the same response, “oh well, then why don’t you pick it up…”. Maybe it is time to ban smoking all together to do away with the temptation these folks can’t seem to fight of tossing thier butts on the ground??!! We could get rid of the trash polution along with air polution all at once!

  15. Jan permalink
    September 28, 2010

    Nice post. I also totally love my e cigarette. And cigarette butts are awful. Everyone should use them. But, guys, watch out, don’t get yourself a scam electronic cigarette. There are quite a few. Read reviews first:

  16. Shaun permalink
    April 13, 2011

    I completely agree, imagine if everyone who smokes cigarettes switched to the e cigarettes how all the streets would soon be clean of cigarette butts in the gutters. Not to mention the stink of them from those that smoke in public. I found another cool site with some good e cigarette reviews

  17. Jay permalink
    May 12, 2011

    Chris and Shaun great comments! I totally agree that e cigarettes could help with these issues. I noticed a women toss a cigarette butt out the window of her minivan the other day. I would have loved to ask her why she did it but instead I just continued on. :-( She had a child in the back seat. It really bothered me because I grew up with parents that smoked around me. I always tried to get them to quit but they never did. I recently gave my mother an e cigarette started kit as a gift. I’ve researched many of the brands. I don’t think there is one brand that fits all so you really need to do some research before you choose a brand.

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