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Akst: Get your butt out of here

Published: Friday, March 29, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

Boredom set in Tuesday afternoon for our 7-year-old on spring break. Unfortunately, I had drunk too much coffee and my son – whom I love dearly – was tap dancing on my very last nerve.

We needed an activity, and the boy had a great idea: We should walk around our block, picking up litter.

Litter is a pet peeve for both of us, so we began a circuit of our middle-class, well-maintained block in Sycamore. We found broken glass, metal, used condoms (1. Yuck; 2. He didn’t ask what they were) and treasure: a Lego figurine.

By weight, wet newspapers were most of the 20 to 30 pounds of litter we collected, but by quantity, overwhelmingly, cigarette butts were most of the litter. We picked up more than a dozen before leaving our property, and nobody in my family smokes. All told, we picked up at least 100 butts.

National data indicate our find wasn’t unusual.

Cigarette butts are the most frequently littered item, and tobacco products comprise 38 percent of all U.S. roadway litter, according to Keep America Beautiful.

Smoking disgusts me. I understand kicking the habit is harder than nearly any addiction, so I sympathize with smokers struggling to quit.

But sympathy ends when smokers toss butts out of car windows, on sidewalks, in parking lots – wherever.

Some findings about cigarette butt litter:

• There’s disagreement as to whether butts, which are composed largely of a plastic, ever decompose, but even if they do, it takes 18 months to 10 years, and the toxins in them leach into groundwater and soil.

• Litterers tossed butts an average of 31 feet from an ash receptacle.

• Littering is associated with the number of receptacles. More availability equals less litter.

• The National Fire Prevention Association reported in April that nearly 91,000 smoking material fires resulting in $663 million in direct property damage killed 610 people in the U.S. in 2010. That’s nearly an all-time low.

• A new study published last year seems to prove that urban birds that weave butts into their nests benefit from doing so. Besides being a great nest-building material, butts contain nicotine, an insecticide that drives away parasites.

• Most other animals and humans don’t fare as well. In 2010, the American Association of Poison Control Centers received more than 7,000 reports of potentially toxic exposures to tobacco products among children under 6 in the U.S. Most cases of nicotine poisoning among children result from their ingestion of cigarettes or chewing tobacco.

• According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Rhode Island Department of Health, children in households where cigarettes are smoked in their presence were four times more likely to ingest cigarettes or cigarette butts than in households where smoking does not occur around children.

Salvaging the global economy is one thing, but I grow weary of solvable problems. A few weeks ago, somebody driving ahead of me on Sycamore Road tossed a still-lit butt out their window. The wind carried it right onto my hood. I managed to buff out the burn marks.

In February, Keep America Beautiful reported an average of 55 percent reduction of cigarette litter in communities that implemented its Cigarette Litter Prevention Program during 2012. So, that’s one thing communities could do.

I favor a more hard-line approach: Enforce laws already on the books. Every time smokers treat the world like an ashtray, fine them. Communities would have plenty of cash.

Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. You can reach him at jasondakst@gmail.com.

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