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Cigarettes: When did it become ‘OK’
to Litter?

2012 June 6

By Kevin Hurley

The next time you are walking down the streets of NYC, take a moment to look around on the ground and actually count the number of cigarette butts that litter our city.  I performed this very activity this morning while walking down Broadway from the subway to the office building where I work.  On one side of one city block I counted 57 cigarette butts.  During my walk down this same city block I witnessed two individuals discard their half finished cigarettes onto the city streets.  Not surprisingly, no one seemed shocked or said anything regarding their actions, myself included.  So, when did it become ‘OK’ to litter?  Why does everyone get a “pass” when it comes to littering cigarettes?

(EPA Photo/Kevin Hurley)

Cigarette butts are the most littered item in America.  Most cigarette filters contain some sort of plastic, which can endure in the environment for long periods of time.  Nationally, cigarette butts account for one-quarter or more of the items that are tossed onto our streets and roadways.  According to the 2011 Ocean Conservancy International Coastal Cleanup, cigarette butts represented 32% of all debris counted.  Cigarette butts, traveling mainly through storm water systems, often end up in local streams, rivers and waterways.  Unfortunately, residents, businesses and local governments are usually stuck with the bill when it comes to cleaning up this litter.

Not being a smoker, I do not really understand the issues that smokers face when it comes to the decision of where and how to discard of cigarettes.  Is it a lack of ash receptacles, a lack of awareness of the environmental impacts, a lack of caring, a lack of motivation or some other rationale?  An individual’s decision to throw their trash on the ground, however you look at it, is still littering.

So I’ll ask my question again, when did it become ‘OK’ to litter?

About the author:  Kevin has been working as a Grants Management Specialist with the EPA since 2007, and is currently on detail serving as special assistant to the Regional Administrator.  He grew up in South Jersey, went to school outside of Baltimore, and received a Masters in Public Policy from Rutgers University.  Kevin currently resides in the Upper East Side of Manhattan where you can usually find him exercising or playing outdoor ice hockey in Central Park.

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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3 Responses leave one →
  1. Kathleen Foley permalink
    June 13, 2012

    I agree that it’s never ok to litter and it seems it’s become acceptable to discard butts without penalty, possibly due to lack of enforcement. Filters were originally made of cotton, but are now made of acetate (plastic)…think costs. It seems since it’s acceptable to discard butts out the window, in parks, on streets, off boats, then it’s also acceptable to throw the plastic wrappings too.(?) I have cut open fish to find the butts inside their stomachs, and it’s heart-wrenching. If we can’t enforce the laws of littering, then wouldn’t it make sense to make the product and packaging biodegradable? At least for waterways’ sake. However, this plan wouldn’t curtail the incidents of brush fires and forest fires.
    Isn’t it time citizens stopped footing the bill for careless smoker’s nasty habits, e.g., stormwater stuctures, fires, clean-up? There are some considerate smokers who put out their butts, then carry it with them until they find a proper receptacle.

  2. Georgia permalink
    June 18, 2012

    I smoked for 32 years and resulted to quitting after my father passed away with lung cancer and at no time while I was a smoker did I ever thought that it was ok to litter with those nasty cigarette butts. Actually, there are more than enough receptacles I personally think that people are just lazy.

  3. Michi permalink
    October 21, 2013

    I fully agree. The nonchalance that smokers throw their cigarette butts away as if it was part of the deal when they purchased the cigarette is annoying, to say the least.

    This pollution could be (and already is) much reduced by moving from “normal” health threatening cigarettes to safe and environmentally friendly ecigarettes.

    I intellectually understand why a smoker needs to keep using cigarettes, but I don’t understand the population’s acceptance to the impact smoking has on civilization.

    e-cigarettes are environmentally sound and keep the smoker healthy (and cost half of the “real” smoking habit).

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