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Second story – Summer 2014
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The Global Plastic Breakdown: How Microplastics Are Shredding Ocean Health
VOLUME 28, NUMBER 3, SUMMER 2014             

By John H. Tibbetts                                                                       back to main story

Sweeps capture plastic litter, including cigarette butts

Each year along the state’s waterways and beaches, South Carolinians and visitors pick up tons of plastic litter items that would otherwise shred into smaller and smaller pieces and potentially threaten aquatic life. Cigarette butts, which few people realize are manufactured with synthetic fabrics, made up the majority—53%—of all marine-debris items gathered and counted during the 2013 Beach Sweep/River Sweep.

Beach Sweep/River Sweep is South Carolina’s largest one-day volunteer cleanup event of its kind. Every third Saturday in September, from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m., thousands of dedicated volunteers clear beaches, rivers, lakes, marshes, and swamps of debris.

The cleanup, organized by the S.C. Sea Grant Consortium and the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, has taken place since 1988 when the Consortium first started it.

The Sweep is held in conjunction with the International Coastal Cleanup, coordinated by the Ocean Conservancy, in which more than 100 countries now take part. Each year, the Ocean Conservancy publishes a detailed inventory of every item of debris that’s been collected. This helps track down the sources of litter.

The trash collected around the world shows a surprising uniformity. In beaches from the United States to China to France, volunteers pick up plastic bottles, plates, cups, straws, stirrers, and fast-food wrappers.

The Ocean Conservancy reports that “cigarette butts have been the single most recovered item since collections began.”

Surfrider Foundation check cigarette butt collectionMost of us wouldn’t think of cigarette butts as plastic items. But the vast majority of cigarette filters around the world are made with fibers called cellulose acetate. Manufacturers add a chemical called acetic anhydride to cellulose fibers made from wood or cotton. The resulting chemical reaction creates thin, very strong fibers. Packed tightly together and chemically designed to absorb vapors and to accumulate smoke particulates, these chemically enhanced fibers provide a rigid, sturdy filter.

Cellulose fibers degrade naturally in the environment. But cellulose fibers manufactured with additives of cellulose acetate are not biodegradable; they shred into smaller and smaller pieces but do not completely disappear for a long time.

Each year over six trillion cigarettes are manufactured globally. Approximately 99% have a filter tip. Filters are often thrown on streets where stormwater runoff sweeps them into rivers and then out to sea, where they can release chemicals including nicotine, benzene, and cadmium.

There are several options available to reduce the environmental impact of cigarette-butt waste, according to Thomas Novotny, an epidemiologist at San Diego State University, in a 2009 study. These options include developing biodegradable filters, increasing fines and penalties for littering, requiring money deposits on filter use, increasing availability of receptacles, and expanded public education.

Too often smokers don’t recognize cigarette butts as litter. California has attempted to change that by specifically designating butts as litter and imposing a fine of $250-to-$1,000 for their improper disposal. A court can also require the convicted litterer to pick up trash for no less than 12 hours.

Many states and communities have attempted to head off this type of litter in part by passing laws and ordinances prohibiting smoking in parks and on beaches. Maine prohibits smoking in all state parks and beaches. Many municipalities have prohibited smoking in parks, while others have prohibited smoking on beaches.

George Leonard, chief scientist at the Ocean Conservancy in Santa Cruz, California, notes a decline in the number of cigarette butts recorded from 2001-2003 to 2011-2013 as part of the U.S. effort in the International Coastal Cleanup, although significantly more U.S. volunteers were involved in the later period. Globally, larger numbers of volunteers are recording larger volumes of butts—nearly a 50% increase from 2001-2003 to 2011-2013.

The Ocean Conservancy has received a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to dig deeper into the U.S. cleanup data. For instance, why are there declining number of cigarette butts picked up? One hypothesis is that fewer Americans are smoking, so there are fewer cigarette butts on beaches. Or perhaps overwhelmed volunteers are underestimating the number of cigarette butts they pick up. Another hypothesis is that frequent, local cleanups are gathering litter, so there’s less trash for the annual cleanups.

Marty Morganello is the blue-water taskforce coordinator for the Surfrider Foundation, Charleston chapter, managing efforts of about 300 local volunteers, some of whom do regular beach cleanups.

“No matter how many sweep cleanups you do,” he says, “the volume of butts on the beach seems never-ending. We’re trying to educate people that when you drop your cigarette butts on the street, that litter washes into the storm drains and it affects the water and the beach.”

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Last updated: 10/10/2014 1:08:50 PM
Second story – Summer 2014


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