Cigarette butts

Flickr: waferboard

Picture this. You’re at a red light, maybe playing the drums on the steering wheel as you wait patiently (or not) for the light to change. The driver in front of you rolls down the window, flicks out a cigarette butt, rolls up the window and as the light turns to green drives on down the road like nothing happened.

If you’re anything like me, this scene makes you hotter than the cigarette still smoking on the pavement.

More than once I’ve rolled down my own window and yelled at the car in front. The last time the driver yelled back at me to “chill out” and my teenager freaked that I was going to get shot, so I decided it wasn’t worth potentially jeopardizing his — and my — safety.

If only there was a better way…

There is.

After hearing me whine about one of these times during a meeting, a City of Raleigh coworker, Megan Hinkle, clued me in on the NC Department of Transportation’s Swat-a-Litterbug (SWAT) anonymous reporting system.

It’s brilliant. All you need to know is the NC license plate, what time you saw something tossed out the window — it can be anything, not just a cigarette — on what street.

Last week I tweeted the form link with this snarky lead-in:
Dear Driver on New Hope Rd who tossed the cigarette out the window, you’ll be getting a nice letter in the mail soon

I have a decent Twitter following1 but 65 click-throughs to a web link2 is unheard-of-statistical-territory for me.

It obviously struck a nerve, and that’s why you’re reading this. I caught up with Mike Causey, NCDOT Adopt-A-Highway coordinator and manager of the Office of Beautification, to learn more about the program and spread the word that you too can get that smug satisfaction from turning in a litterbug.

The program has been around for 25 years. It grew out of the Adopt-A-Highway program; North Carolina, one of the early states join Texas’ lead in cleaning up its roadways, started its program in 1988. It was a natural progression after North Carolina’s Wildflower Program, begun by First Lady Dottie Martin in 1985.

“All of these programs stemmed from Highway Beautification efforts initiated by First Lady Lady Bird Johnson, and continued by others, including Gov. Jim Hunt,” Causey said. “Texas has ‘Don’t Mess with Texas’ and at one time North Carolina had an ‘NC getting mean about clean’ campaign.”

SWAT isn’t mean, it’s “simply an educational tool that raises awareness of littering laws. We have no enforcement power,” Causey explained. “The positives? It does get their attention and raises awareness.”

imageApproximately 1,000 SWAT letters a month are sent out to the violators. It’s not surprising that the most are from NC’s two largest counties, Wake and Mecklenburg. The City of Charlotte has its own phone number, 311, to report litterbugs, but the Office of Beautification gets the reports and sends out the letters.

According to Causey, the numbers have remained steady for years, with I-40, Highway 70 and I-85 the most reported highways.

Cigarette butts are the major litter complaint, comprising nearly 95 percent of SWAT reports.

In my humble opinion, tossing out butts is something NCDOT should get mean about. They can take up to 10 years to decompose, and that’s not the worst part.

A study from the National Center for Biotechnology Information reports that “cigarette butts (CBs) are the most common type of litter on earth, with an estimated 4.5 trillion discarded annually. Apart from being unsightly, CBs pose a serious threat to living organisms and ecosystem health when discarded in the environment because they are toxic to microbes, insects, fish and mammals. Our experiment confirmed the low degradation rate of CBs which, on average, lost only 37.8% of their initial mass after two years of decomposition.

A recent study reported that CBs affect avian behaviour in urban ecosystems. Such studies highlighted a higher toxic effect of smoked vs. unsmoked CBs since the former retain a substantial amount of nicotine and other compounds derived from tobacco combustion, including hydrogen cyanide, ammonia, acetaldehyde, formaldehyde, benzene, phenols and pyridines.”3

After cigarettes, fast food wrappers, bottles, cups and assorted paper trash make up the rest, except for one very creative report Causey mentioned.

“The strangest report I’ve seen is a report for a vehicle making a U-turn in the highway — claiming the ‘vehicle’ was littering the roadway by slowing down traffic.”

There’s one in every crowd.

  1. Especially considering my random stream of consciousness bounces around sustainability, innovation, writing, art, cats, downtown Raleigh and occasionally football.
  2. Especially one about litter!
  3. Just the cocktail we want in our streams, rivers, lakes and drinking water, am I right?
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