In this next article in the Earth Week series, Joanna Panasiewicz of the Erie County Department of Environment and Planning talks about how one simple form of picking up litter can make a huge impact.
Help Cleanup Buffalo's Waterways, with Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, Re-ENERGIZE Buffalo, and GrowWNY.org at Broderick Park tomorrow for the annual Shoreline Sweep clean up. REGISTER FOR THE CLEANUP ONLINE and view the full list of Shoreline Sweep sites throughout Western New York.
Polluted runoff severely degrades our local waterways. A major component of this is litter. Throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s, I remember various advertising campaigns and school programs designed to teach me not to litter and to pick up garbage if I saw it on the ground. In all of those lessons I received, cigarette butts were never mentioned, and to be honest, I never really thought they were much of a problem. I always figured they were too tiny to make a big impact and would decompose shortly anyway. I was wrong.
Having participated in several community and shoreline cleanups, I noticed that the overwhelming majority of trash seemed to be cigarette butts. The cigarette filters are often made from cellulose acetate, a plastic that looks like natural fibers. These filters do not break down easily and can be swallowed by fish, birds, and other wildlife blocking their throats or digestive tracts. This realization hit home when an ornithologist friend of mine mentioned she had just dissected a bird that had three cigarette filters inside its tiny body! Not only are the filters a physical problem, they are also a chemical problem. When the filters get wet, they release toxic components, including nicotine, benzene, and heavy metals into our wildlife and water.
When I think of all the cigarette butts I see everyday on sidewalks, outside of doorways, along street curbs, throughout parking lots, and in the grass, I am reminded that smokers do not smoke just one cigarette a day. Multiply that by the number of smokers in America (approximately 50 million) and you can quickly appreciate the volume of cigarette butts washed from pavement to storm drains and straight to local waterways. Throughout most of Western New York, stormwater receives no treatment before being discharged to creeks, streams, rivers, and lakes.
What can YOU do to protect our wildlife and waterways?
If you are a smoker, make sure to place cigarette butts into proper receptacles and ash trays rather than tossing them on the street. Encourage your place of work or businesses you frequent to provide a smoker’s pole or similar device. Even better, of course, would be to quit smoking. Everyone can make sure to throw trash into the proper garbage or recycling container. You can also participate in a local cleanup event. Buffalo Niagara RIVERKEEPER will be hosting a shoreline cleanup at multiple locations throughout Western New York on April 21. For more information, visit: http://bnriverkeeper.org/get-involved/cleanups/.
If everyone in America picked up one piece of trash from the ground it would prevent 312 million pieces of litter from reaching our waterways. Do your part to snuff out litter. To find out more about what you can do to prevent stormwater pollution, visit: www.erie.gov/stormwater.