Walking to the grocery store the other day, I watched as a man took a final drag off his cigarette and then threw it onto the sidewalk. Sights like that are so common, seldom do they even register in my brain.
But in that moment I was struck by the bizarreness of this banal act: Why is this form of litter socially acceptable?
I'm a child of the '70s, so I remember Woodsy Owl's "Give a Hoot, Don't Pollute" campaign well. And after observing litter patterns firsthand in Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent, I've come to the conclusion that in general, Americans seem to have internalized the fact that it's not great to throw crap on the ground.
But there seems to be an unspoken exception for the cigarette butt, which according to LitterButt is the most common form of litter. For some reason, people who would never dream of putting a candy wrapper anywhere but in a garbage bin think nothing of flicking their cigarette butts into the gutter. Why is that?
LitterButt suggests that smokers don't consider butts litter, and think that they will naturally decompose. Because, you know, some of them look sorta cottony. For a nice explanation of why that isn't true, see this helpful page from Virginia Clean Waterways.
"So what?" smokers may ask. Well, the nonprofit's website also explains that butts pose a threat to wildlife: "Studies conducted by Clean Virginia Waterways show that the chemicals in cigarette butts easily leach out of the butts, and are deadly to water fleas (a small but important animal that lives in most freshwater lakes and streams as well as the ocean)." In addition, birds and marine creatures often ingest cigarette butts, mistaking them for food.
So my question is, How can we make throwing cigarette butts on the ground socially unacceptable?
In Japan, it's considered less OK than it is in the States. Campaigns and signs (like the humorously unclear one shown above, from Kimonobox.com) urge smokers not to drop their butts on the ground. Personal ashtrays (I saw the one pictured below, by NEU, on Japan Trendshop) are also common over there—and they offer a solution to the problem that butts can't go in garbage cans because of the fire hazard. What would it take to make them popular over here?
Another interesting idea came from a designer I met the other night. What if cigarette boxes had a built-in butt-disposal compartment? This is unlikely, of course, since a larger package size would usher in a whole set of additional associated costs, but it certainly seems worthy of exploration.
What do you think?