Just a couple of blocks. Down to the corner, a right-hand turn, past the Tim Hortons and almost to the taxi stand. Less than five minutes’ walk.
Cigarette butts, that is.
A winter melt brings all kinds of things to the surface. Scattered change, a rusting 10 mm socket from a socket wrench set, a green and white India rubber ball the size of a big plum, a knit hat — beige — with a real fur pompom.
And cigarette butts. Most of all, cigarette butts. Many types, many brands, sometimes alone, often in clumps where someone has tipped out an overflowing car ashtray. More at intersections than anywhere else, probably because it’s a handy place for drivers to open the window and just pitch them out.
On one downtown walk, counting carefully, I gave up as I crossed the 1,000 mark — so many in some places that counting meant I had to stop walking, because I simply couldn’t count them all if I was still moving.
There’s a lot made about plastic in the ocean, about things like drinking straws as waste, but they’re not the real winner.
No, if you look at waste surveys the world over, especially beach waste, the clear winner is always that little paper tube surrounding a micro-plastic filter, the small, floating cylinder that no one ever wants to actually take home and dispose of responsibly.
The little cigarette boats float admirably, make their way down the gutter to catch basins and eventually the sea, and become everything from jetsam to accidentally eaten, sometimes deadly food for marine life.
When, in 2018, California tried to ban cigarette filters, the legislation pointed out that cigarette butts were the single largest litter item collected in California cleanups. And the single largest item found in litter cleanups in the United States. And the single largest item found in waste cleanups internationally as well.
I’ve seen scores of the filters on Prince Edward Island beaches, in Bay of Fundy tidelines , and on Newfoundland beaches so out of the way and untouched that it’s hard to imagine the last time there was even a single person on that stretch of round stones.
The numbers are truly staggering: there are some 5.6 trillion filtered cigarettes made every year, and current estimates are that more than 3.7 trillion of those are simply dumped by smokers. Since it takes decades for even one butt to break down, that means at least 74 trillion — and probably far more — cigarette butts are in active circulation out there in the world. And they’re not just little edible-sized nuggets of plastic particles, either. Given their role as filters, they also contain everything from arsenic to nicotine to heavy metals.
And the butts turn up in some amazing places: a 2017 article in the scientific Journal of Avian Biology pointed out that house finches are using cigarette filter materials as a found insecticide to fight ticks in their nests — the downside being that, as an earlier study pointed out, “The butts cause (genetic) damage to finches by interfering with cell division, which we assessed by looking at their red blood cells.”
I’ve seen scores of the filters on Prince Edward Island beaches, in Bay of Fundy tidelines, and on Newfoundland beaches so out of the way and untouched that it’s hard to imagine the last time there was even a single person on that stretch of round stones.
The melt, is of course, the worst time; everyone’s secret trash — from the burst garbage bag at the curb to Fido’s delightful deposit left on the ground by dog owners who only scoop when it looks like someone may be watching — surfaces when the hiding snow retreats.
But do it yourself for a bit, and have a look at how many cigarette butts are cropping up.
Problem is, like anything, once you start to see them, it’s hard to stop.
Not mankind’s finest hour, by any measure.
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Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 36 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org — Twitter: @wangersky.