The unfortunate tenacity of the most common piece of litter


X Scalper

Eight years ago, in the town of Van Buren, Missouri, newly retired resident John Pope walked six blocks and picked up 1,085 cigarette butts.

The unsightly, unpleasant litter problem — as we’re all acutely aware — isn’t confined to Pope’s quiet community in southern Missouri. 

Cigarette butts have the proud distinction of being the most common form of litter on America’s beaches. Some 6 trillion cigarettes are manufactured on Earth each year, and between 750 million to 1,500 million pounds of cigarette butt waste — largely made of a plastic-like material called cellulose acetate — are ultimately flung to the ground annually, according to the World Health Organization.

To be fair, not all cigarettes are flung or flicked to the ground. Over a quarter of littered cigarette are stomped, while around 35 percent are “dropped with intent.” Just one percent of smokers shoot for a receptacle, but like Shaq at the free-throw line, miss.

Dumping your waste on the ground, which is at best a lame and short-sighted activity, isn’t some mindless, subconscious habit. It’s a committed effort, explained Wes Schultz, a social psychologist who has diligently observed and researched the phenomenon of people’s propensity to litter cigarettes. 

“People know what they’re doing, but they choose to do it anyway,” Schultz, a professor of psychology at California State University San Marcos, said in an interview.

And it’s quite common. In formal, peer-reviewed studies, Schultz and other researchers observed people littering cigarette butts a whopping 65 percent of the time. 

“That’s a shocking number, right?” he noted.

Can the scourge be stopped?

Convincing a fully-grown adult to alter their behavior — even when that behavior is senseless — is often difficult. But when it comes to littering, the cause is not lost. Rather than trying to convince someone not to toss their depleted carcinogens on the ground, the solution is making it easier to throw the butts into a receptacle of some sort. 

“It’s not a matter of convincing people not to do it,” said Schultz. “It’s a matter of making the trash disposal easy.”

In Van Buren, Pope applied for a grant from the anti-littering campaigners Keep America Beautiful

They gave him $1,500 to put out public cigarette receptacles over a six-block area. He’s been devoted to the cause for eight years, and there are now 12 urns on this stretch of sidewalk. 

Pope’s efforts, it turns out, have been a smashing success. He recently walked around the same six-blocks this year, counting cigarettes. 

“The count was 125,” said Pope. For reference, that’s a 90 percent reduction from eight years previous. 

Cigarettes brimming from a cigarette ashtray in Germany.

Image: Robert Seitz/imageBROKER/REX/Shutterstock

But it’s not just cigarette urns that do the trick. It’s the overall environment the cigarette smoker finds themselves in. When one is strolling around a litter-strewn plaza, they’re considerably more likely to flick a burned-down butt than if they’re walking through a well-kept square.

“It’s related to conformity,” Renee Bator, a social psychologist that has also researched people’s littering habits, said in an interview. 

“When people see other cigarettes at a beach, it sends a message that littering is not such a bad thing to be doing,” Bator, a professor at The State University of New York College at Plattsburgh, added.

Conversely, litter-free places have the opposite effect. Disneyland, a place ripe for the dumping of litter on the ground by its tens of thousands of daily visitors, combats the problem with employees who are constantly sweeping, all the while clad in bright, sterile white janitorial attire. Just the presence of the sweepers alone might discourage littering, mused Bator.

“How could you drop something in front them?” Bator said. “You’d feel horrible”

Quelling disorder

Some might perceive the problem of litter to be an inconsequential thing — especially light of a pervasive, looming environmental mess like climate change

But the veins of litter run deeper than we’d like to think. Social psychologist have found littering feeds social disarray, and even criminal behavior. 

“It’s the spreading of this sense of social disorder,” said Schultz. 

This was tested, and observed, in Europe. In a variety of city settings, social psychologists threw different public environments into disarray, with strewn-about shopping carts, graffiti, and litter. 

They even left out open envelopes filled with money, to see if petty theft might occur. Indeed, in littered, disrupted environments, theft occurred twice as much.  

“We found that, when people observe that others violated a certain social norm or legitimate rule, they are more likely to violate other norms or rules, which causes disorder to spread,” the authors wrote. 

“It’s the spreading of this sense of social disorder”

For his part, Pope is doing his best to contain local disorder. 

He hands out 300 to 400 portable “pocket ashtrays” each year, which gives folks a place to deposit their cigarettes wherever they might be.

When Pope spots someone smoking in town, he’ll pull up in his car and offer up one of these mobile ashtrays, free of charge.

“I seldom have anyone that refuses,” he said.

Butts collecting in a street grate.

Butts collecting in a street grate.

Image: Carlos Sanchez/imageBROKER/REX/Shutterstock

As for the smoker who’s on the fence about still flicking their cigarette onto the pavement, it might be of benefit to consider that a vast quantities of butts aren’t picked up by cleaning fairies overnight, nor Pope. 

Rather, like many consequences, they collect in the lowest of places.

That means sea level. Specifically, beaches. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has a Marine Debris Program that collects and counts litter on beaches. Cigarette butts always find themselves near the top of the list. 

“There’s a common misconception that the litter you see on beaches is from people smoking on beaches,” Sherry Lippiatt, who works at NOAA’s Marine Debris Program, said in an interview.

Instead, rivers, storm drains, and the inexorable movement of things downriver brings someone’s flicked cigarette butt to the beaches. 

It’s the modern beach of the Anthropocene, an often-expected, unfortunate part of the landscape. But, at least, it’s solvable. And perhaps one day, it will be viewed as just a backwards, 21st Century taboo. 

“Cigarette butts seem to be the last socially acceptable form of litter,” said Lippiatt.

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