LAKE HURON— Cigarette butts are one of the most common litter items found on Lake Huron public beaches. Data from the Great Canadian Shoreline Clean-up shows cigarette butts and related litter (cigar tips, lighters, and packaging) sum to 45 percent of all litter items removed from the Lake Huron shoreline in 2014.
While cigarette butts littered across beaches are definitely unsightly, they also introduce a number of serious environmental threats. The “Butt Free Beach” campaign of the Lake Huron Centre for Coastal Conservation (the Coastal Centre), is designed to raise awareness of the environmental impacts of butt litter on beaches, while providing an opportunity for smoking beach goers to responsibly dispose their cigarette filters.
Cigarette butts are made of cellulose acetate, a fibrous plastic that never biodegrades. Just like all plastic, a littered butt will breakdown over time into microscopic pieces of plastic. Microplastic pollution in the Great Lakes is an emerging threat that the Coastal Centre has been working on with research and awareness initiatives.
“Cigarette butt litter is just another piece of the bigger plastic pollution problem” said Karen Alexander, outreach and education coordinator for the Coastal Centre. Contrary to popular belief, cigarette butts are not made of cotton and they do not biodegrade. Each littered cigarette filter can contain up to 160 toxic chemicals and 60 of those are known carcinogens. Furthermore, once the filter gets wet those toxic chemicals leach into the surrounding environment. At the beach this means those toxins may be lingering around in the sand where children play and wildlife forage.
Cigarette butts are not just harmful to the environment, as a litter item they require significant costs to cleanup. Municipal staff and residents describe the problem as “disgusting,” particularly after a long weekend when it can take hours to remove litter items from the beach. Many public beaches hire staff to remove litter but cigarette butts are small and are often missed by clean-up crews. If staffs were required to spend the time needed to remove all littered butts it would be quite costly for the local taxpayers. Butt Free Beach is a campaign that aims to reduce butt litter at the source, instead of accepting the costs to clean-up what someone else thoughtlessly discarded.
The Butt Free Beach program originally launched in Grand Bend and Kincardine’s Station Beach in 2013 and has since expanded along the Lake Huron shore to include Canatara Park in Sarnia, Goderich Waterfront, Inverhuron Beach and Sauble Beach.
The Butt Free Beach campaign uses education signs to describe the problem and gain attention to the issue. One of the signs appear as a speech bubble saying “I am a beach, not an ashtray! Please don’t bury your butts in me!” The campaign also provides reusable and/or recyclable personal beach ashtrays to smoking beach goers so they can responsibly dispose of their cigarette butts.
Using beach clean-ups the Coastal Centre can evaluate the impact of the program.
“We aim for zero butts left on the beach, but realistically any significant drop in butt pollution is an indication that the campaign is working,” says Ms. Alexander.
Data from Australia suggests that most smokers voluntarily obliged with responsible cigarette butt disposal once they become aware of the impacts butt litter can have on the environment. “We just want to get the word out and ask the beach-going public to “Be a Beach Bum, not a Beach Butt” by responsibly disposing their butts while visiting Lake Huron’s world-class beaches.”