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As the smoke clears

Columbia’s smoking ordinance cleared smoke from inside businesses, but it has increasingly dirtied the streets and sidewalks with cigarette butts
Sunday, February 25, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 10:23 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Mike McCann exhaled a mixture of smoke and frosty breath as he casually tossed his cigarette butt into a puddle outside Tiger Barber Shop.

“Just toss it in the street and let the street sweeper get it,” he said.

McCann, 65, has been a barber for 45 years, and some things have become routine. Throwing cigarette butts in the street is a habit, he said. It’s a habit for other smokers as well.

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John Doerflinger walks past Columbia Billiards on Ninth Street as melting snow reveals a sidewalk full of cigarette butts on Monday. (WM. SRITE/Missourian)

Since Columbia’s smoking ordinance took effect in early January, more cigarette butts have been showing up on sidewalks and streets as smokers have been forced outside. The litter is not only unsightly — it’s a source of water pollution as the butts wash down storm drains that flow into streams.

“Basically, anything that is deposited on the streets and sidewalks, including cigarette butts, sooner or later ends up in the streams that drain Columbia,” said Ken Midkiff, a Columbia resident and conservation chairman of the local Sierra Club.

The most environmentally hazardous part of a cigarette butt is the filter, which is made of condensed cellulose acetate, a mass of plastic fibers thinner than sewing threads that doesn’t decay easily.

Experiments with the crustacean Daphnia (often called a water flea) concluded that the toxic chemicals in cigarette filters dissolve in water and are lethal to the freshwater crustacean, which is a crucial link at the lower end of the aquatic food chain.

Those results were part of a study, “Cigarette Butts as Litter: Toxic as Well as Ugly,” conducted in 2000 by Kathleen Register, executive director of Clean Virginia Waterways. Register, whose study on cigarette toxins is one of only a few of its kind, said cigarette butts are the No. 1 type of litter in the world year after year.

“It is partly because smokers think cigarette butts are degradable,” she said. “They think (the filter) is cotton, not plastic.”

Although Register’s study was conducted only in Virginia, she said it is applicable to the rest of the country. Rivers, lakes and oceans can experience the effects of littering, and coastal states aren’t the only places contributing to the problem.

“Sixty to 80 percent of all trash found in our oceans comes from our inland sources,” Register said. “All of our waterways are connected.”

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Barber Mike McCann takes a cigarette break outside the Tiger Barber Shop on Feb. 15. McCann said tossing cigarette butts into the street is a habit.

(ANDREI PUNGOVSCHI/Missourian)

According to Register’s study, bans on indoor smoking have “appeared to cause a shift” in the disposal of cigarette butts. “Circumstantial evidence indicates that more cigarette butts are accumulating outside of buildings because of the popularity of indoor smoking bans. In Australia, cigarette butts account for 50 percent of all litter, a trend that the executive director of Keep Australia Clean blames partly on indoor no-smoking policies,” Register’s study said.

Ashtrays are forbidden in Columbia bars and restaurants under the city’s new smoking restrictions. Numerous businesses have provided receptacles for smokers to dispose of their cigarette butts. The 9th Street Deli has a tall butt container; Harpo’s has a paint bucket labeled “cigarette butts” in permanent marker; and Dreamcatcher has had a cigarette repository for a few years.

But not all businesses have followed suit. Carrie Gartner, director of the Special Business District, said she has not made extra efforts to inform the 500-plus businesses in The District that it’s their responsibility to clean their sidewalks. She said it’s the responsibility of the smoker not to litter in the first place.

Gartner said The District employs two street cleaners who sweep the sidewalks from midnight to 7 a.m. and 7 a.m. to 11 a.m.

“We have 43 square blocks here, and we have two employees working part time,” she said. “It’s really intended as icing on the cake, because the business owners should be responsible for cleaning their own sidewalks.”

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Mark Anderson carries a cup of coffee during his street sweeping shift on Feb. 16. Anderson said he likes his job despite the cold weather. During warm weather, Anderson said litter from cigarettes is more noticeable. (JESSICA BECKER/Missourian)

Mark Anderson, one of the two street sweepers, works the shift from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. He said he hadn’t seen a large jump in the amount of cigarette litter on the sidewalks, partly because it is winter. “When it’s warm, then you come down here, and it’ll be a mess,” he said. “It’s nothing nice.”

The problem isn’t limited to downtown. Gary Moore, owner of Murry’s at 3107 Green Meadows Way, said that he usually has people smoking outside his restaurant.

“It wasn’t a huge issue; we’ve got to (clean up) anyway every morning,” he said. “But there were certainly more cigarette butts than usual” after the new law was enacted.

Outside Rack ’N’ Roll on South Providence Road, a cigarette butt container placed near the front door stands idly by a sidewalk mulched on each side with cigarette butts.

Josh Allen, a Moberly Area Community College student who was at Rack ’N’ Roll on Thursday night, said he would use the cigarette receptacle there, but if there wasn’t one in other parts of the city, he would have no choice but to throw his butt on the ground.

“Where else are you going to put it?” he said. “Unless you want to go into the bathroom, put it out under the sink and throw it in the trash can. Nobody’s going to put that much effort into it.”

Matt McGee, managing partner of the downtown bar On the Rocks, said he and his staff clean up as many as 60 cigarette butts a night. He said he recently spent $300 on two cigarette butt urns for his bar. McGee also said he repeatedly sees the staff of other bars, which he wouldn’t name, sweep discarded butts into the street.

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Smokers contribute to litter from cigarettes on Ninth Street on Feb. 9. Columbia’s ban on smoking indoors has caused a visible increase in cigarette butt litter on downtown streets. (AARON ROSENBLATT/Missourian)

“The city enacted a smoking ordinance, but they didn’t think about the waste spillover into our streets and sewers,” McGee said. “If the city really wanted to ban smoking in bars and restaurants, they should have installed a mechanism for dealing with the litter.”

Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser, who voted against the ordinance in October, sympathized with some of the proprietors.

“It’s a lot easier to clean up ashtrays inside a building than to go out and clean up at 2 in the morning,” she said.

Mayor Darwin Hindman, who voted for the ordinance, said it “has not created a litter butt problem for the city; that’s already been here. But it may make it more intense.”

Gartner said the side effects of the ban came as no surprise.

“I think there are always these kinds of unintended consequences that you don’t think about until later, and this is one of them,” she said.

The District does not plan to purchase public ashtrays because of a lack of funding and concerns about a clause of the ordinance that prohibits smoking within 20 feet of the entrance to any public business, Gartner said.

“Who’s going to pay for that? We don’t have the budget,” she said. “Since it’s illegal to smoke within 20 feet of a building, that’s actually encouraging (smokers) to do something illegal.”

Gerry Worley, environmental health manager for the Columbia/Boone County Health Department, said that placing an ashtray or urn close to a door is not breaking the law ­— it’s just inadvisable.

“It’s not a violation of the ordinance to locate an ashtray closer than 20 feet from the door. The ordinance says you can’t smoke closer than 20 feet from the door,” he said. “That’s sort of a dichotomy, but I think it’s accurate.”

Linda Cooperstock, a planner for the Health Department, said she hopes businesses will eventually provide their own disposal units. “I’m thinking the businesses who haven’t put (them) up yet just haven’t thought about it yet,” she said.

If the littering continues, city storm drains — and the streams they empty into — are going to bear the brunt of the discarded butts.

Jill Stedem, a public information specialist with the Columbia Public Works Department, said littering with cigarettes is “definitely not something we prefer people to do, because everything that gets thrown in the street ends up going down the storm drains.”

Councilwoman Nauser said she considers littering “one of the most annoying habits people have — even worse than smoking itself.”

Other cities with smoking bans have dealt with unwanted cigarette butts in various ways.

Ernie Slottag, communications director for the city of Springfield, Ill., said his city has put ashtrays on its recycling bins and stepped up a public education and beautification campaign that existed before its smoking ordinance took effect in September 2006.

“People have actually been in the clean-up mode since before the smoking ban,” he said.

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Lawrence, Kan., has had a smoking ban since July 2004, and even though there hasn’t been a concerted, organized effort to educate people about not littering, Janelle Martin, executive director for the Community Health Improvement Project, said the city seems to be doing fine.

In Lawrence, like Columbia, businesses are responsible for cleaning up.

“I’d say after the first three to six months of people getting used to the ordinance and what it meant, these people have come to accept it,” Martin said.

Register, the author of the cigarette butts study, said her solution is education and more places to dispose of butts. “People are more likely to do the right thing if it’s easier,” she said.

Education is most important; throwing butts on the ground shouldn’t be acceptable anymore, Register said. “Society thinks it’s normal — you see it in movies, on TV. We need to make it not normal, she added”

Cooperstock at the Health Department also recognized the need for education.

“The smoking public needs to consider not throwing (butts) out the window like they normally do because it is littering,” she said.

Martin said she can see the need for education about litter from cigarettes.

“It wouldn’t have been a bad idea to provide information about that when we were also providing information about the smoking ban,” she said. “As more cities that are just passing the ban are learning about it from other cities, I think that’s a good thing to include nowadays.”


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