Cigarette Butts Still Polluting Our Highways


Emu and family, on patrol but not picking up cigarette butts! Photo by Laurel Wilson

While resting in our caravan at Winton on a sultry outback day, the stench of tobacco smoke came wafting through the open window.

Going outside to investigate, I found neighbours on either side, sitting outside their vans, puffing away.

I have found, over long periods suffering from respiratory problems, that I am incredibly allergic to cigarette smoke. For years now when anyone rummages in their bag and asks do I mind, I say, yes, I do mind. Outside would be great.

It’s our one inviolate house rule, so much so an old mate in Toowoomba still recalls the night (in the dead of winter) where he was told to go outside to smoke at one of our parties. The hard-arse attitude led to a ditty called ‘If you smoke in my kitchen I’ll fart in our bedroom.’ Not high art, but the kids loved it.

I had intended this week to write about Australian road travellers and our less than perfect track record at cleaning up after ourselves.

Somewhere outside Longreach there is a roadside rest stop, very tidy and well serviced, except for items of trash left on the ground. There were seven wheelie bins there and two small bins in the toilets. So why did I pick up two stubbies and an empty packet of Berocca (a vitamin C supplement) within a metre of the bins?

It might not sound like much, but do the sums; 365 days a year and soon this pristine rest stop will look like the ones where no bins are provided. You’ve probably stopped at one of those, to change drivers or have a quick pee against a tree. These rest stops are usually littered with empty bottles, cans, milk cartons, streamers of toilet paper and, scattered like mucky confetti, hundreds of cigarette butts.

According to Clean up Australia, we discard 7 billion cigarette butts a year. It is the number one litter problem in Australia. The seriousness of the problem becomes obvious when you learn that a third of smokers dispose of their butts outdoors.

The only way to rid rest areas, parks, beaches and other public places of discarded butts is to fastidiously pick them up. Volunteers form ‘emu patrols’ to pick up cigarette butts by hand (gloves and rubbish bags), and then dispose of them in the approved manner.

The term ‘Emu Patrol’ was invented by school teachers who encouraged children to tidy their playgrounds by advancing in a line, bending down and picking up trash. The actions mimic the emu’s feeding habits, frequently bending down to feed on leaves, grass, fruit, native plants and insects.

The upside is that over the last two decades, millions have given up smoking tobacco. The most recent data estimates that 14% of Australian adults smoke tobacco products. The figure is a good deal higher for the 15-18 cohort (54%), well known for lighting up behind the bike sheds.

The figure is also 14% in the US and 13% in New Zealand, where MP Winston Peters has announced a pre-election policy to reduce excise on tobacco products. That old-school tactic reminds me of Budget night in the 1960s which was only ever about two things – will beer and fags cost more?

If you look at statistics on tobacco smoking in 1980, the proportion of Australian adult smokers was 35% (men 46%, women 30%). Forty years on, the numbers have more than halved.

This gradual reduction can be linked to the connection made between smoking and cancer. A vigorous health campaign began which would, over the years, persuade more smokers to quit and hopefully result in their children being less likely to start.

In recent years, the odds have been stacked against tobacco producers, with high excise, restrictions on advertising and compulsory warnings on packaging. The game changer was when smoking was banned in workplaces, pubs, clubs and restaurants.

It’s all a long way from the end of WWII (1945) when 72% of Australian men (and 30% of women) smoked tobacco.

Many took up smoking while serving in the armed forces, which routinely gave troops a tobacco ration. Like many children of fathers who fought in WWII, we had to endure a post-war life of living in a smoky fug. People smoked anywhere and everywhere in that era; no-one gave a thought to passive smoking or health risks.

To my shame, I took up the habit in late teens until giving it away in my late 20s, due to persistent lung infections. Smoking is bad for the health of individuals, but carelessly disposing of butts puts everyone in harm’s way. We already know that cigarette butts are one of the four main causes of grass and bush fires. There are other issues with discarding cigarette butts in the great outdoors.

National Geographic covered this topic in great detail last year. Problem number one is that cigarette filters are made from cellulose acetate, a form of plastic. They can take up to 10 years to break down completely.

Clean Ocean Action executive director Cindy Zipf told NG that cigarette butts are the number one target during beach clean ups. The real problem occurs when butts find their way into rivers and oceans. The tars and heavy metals in cigarette butts leach in to waterways and have a deleterious effects on marine life.

Australia’s problems seem minor, when National Geographic reports that 4.6 trillion cigarettes are smoked and discarded around the world every year.

As The Beatles once famously said in the lyrics of ‘I’m So Tired’ – “We curse Sir Water Raleigh, he was such a stupid git.”

Raleigh introduced tobacco to the UK in 1586. The use of tobacco, most often smoked in pipes, worked its way up to high society and royalty and so became the habit of the masses.

Contrast that with the relentless Quit campaigns of the last 30 years, which, according to the statistics, seem to have worked. And the litter problem is improving. The Keep Australia Beautiful National Litter Index (NLI) measures what litter occurs where and in what volume. In 2017/18, the NLI counted an overall litter reduction of 10.3 per cent fewer ‘items’ than in the same period in 2016/17. The most significant included a 16.8% reduction in take away food and beverage packaging, a 14% reduction in CDS beverage containers and a 6.4% reduction in cigarette litter.

It might not seem like much, but it shows a positive response to increasing attempts to educate smokers.

Some conscientious smokers I know carry a coke can or similar in the car and cram their butts into it (having left a small amount of liquid at the bottom to extinguish the embers). It’s a crude plan but better than other methods, such as grinding the butt into the soil and worse yet, tossing the still-smouldering butt out of the car window, where it could start a conflagration.

Tom Novotny, an epidemiologist at San Diego University, one of the first to start researching the effects of tobacco waste on the environment, is pessimistic:

“It’s the last remaining acceptable form of littering,” Novotny told National Geographic writer, Tik Root.

“People are more likely to pick up their dog poop than cigarette butts.”

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