Cigarette Butt Litter
(Conservation Currents, Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District)
Don't Be a Litterbug: Put Your Butt Where It Belongs!
If you are going to smoke, please put your cigarette butts in the trash—not out the car window, not in the gutter, not on the lawn, and not in a stream.
Cigarette filters are made of cellulose acetate, a plastic that degrades slowly in the environment, if at all. Filters are designed to trap carcinogenic chemicals that smokers don’t want in their lungs and bloodstream. Littered butts are carried by wind and stormwater runoff into nearby water bodies. The cancer causing agents in the filters leak into aquatic ecosystems, threatening the quality of the water and aquatic life. Cigarette filters have been found in the stomachs of fish and birds who mistake them for food.
According to Keep American Beautiful, Inc., smokers litter about 4.5 trillion cigarette butts yearly. The Department of Forestry reports that in 2001, cigarette butts thrown out of vehicle windows caused 190 fires, resulting in 464 acres of Virginia land being burned.
Littering is illegal. Most people are unaware of littering fines. Section 33.1-346 of the Code of Virginia makes littering or dumping trash a Class 1 misdemeanor, punishable by up to 12 months in jail and/or a fine up to $2,500.
Section 10.1-1143 of the Forestry Code makes it unlawful to throw “any lighted smoking material” from a vehicle. This is a Class 2 misdemeanor violation, punishable by up to 6 months in jail and/or a fine up to $1,000. (With either the Class 1 or Class 2 offense, community service can take the place of jail time.)
Penalties are deterrents only when they are enforced. In 2001, Fairfax County police issued just 62 summonses for littering. Any cursory look at parking lots, street gutters, commercial strips, park land, beaches, and even sidewalks and lawns will show that littering is still prevalent in our society.
People who litter are showing their careless disregard for the property and well being of others and the environment. Keep America Beautiful studies have shown that one of the reasons litterbugs feel it is okay to litter is because they believe someone else is paid to clean it up. That’s true. The Virginia Department of Transportation spends about $6.5 million a year on litter control on nearly 57,000 miles of interstate, primary and secondary roads. That’s $6.5 million of taxpayer money that otherwise could have been spent on highway repair projects.
In addition to what VDOT collects, Adopt-a-Highway volunteers pick up about 3 million bags worth of trash annually from 14,000 miles of Virginia’s roads.
Australia adopted strict litter laws a few years ago. Littering lit cigarette butts or tossing any item from a car is subject to a $200 fine. Stubbed out cigarette butts left on the ground earn the violator a $60 fine. In the first nine months under the new laws, 3,131 offenders paid fines for littering from vehicles—mostly cigarette butts.
Please don’t be a litterbug. Put your butt where it belongs—in the trash.