Cigarette Butt Hubbub

Great Britain is voting now!

Wait, is Brexit still not decided? Are there new elections again? Are they looking for a successor for Harry and Meghan democratically? No, no. That’s not it.

Nevertheless, you see little voting boxes more and more frequently when you’re walking down the streets and people can fill them at any time. While this is not about such serious political topics as the withdrawal from the European Union, it is about a fun way to protect our environment. What the one thing has to do with the other? Well, this is where we take a closer look at the “ballot papers”. Because those are cigarette butts. And the voting boxes are ashtrays.

Why are there cigarettes butts everywhere anyway?

Gewohntes Bild am Strand von Norddeich. Foto: Perpetuum Mobility e. V.
Typical sight at a beach in Northern Germany. Picture: Perpetuum Mobility e. V.

Particularly in big cities, more particularly in places where a lot of people come together, and most particularly in spots where many of these people are waiting for something, they are part of the urban image: cigarette butts. So much so that they hardly stand out anymore. So much so that you get a feeling that something is missing or that you’re in a fancy posh area if you don’t see any.

But why do these butts so often end up on the sidewalks that you get the sense the streets are paved with them?

“I don’t do that usually.” Who hasn’t heard this statement before? Sometimes it’s about the fact that someone just ate a bag of chips all by him- or herself. Or it’s a guy who didn’t properly put down the toilet lid. In many cases it’s someone trying to make sure that he or she only accidentally and definitely for the very first time watched I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here! And only for a few seconds. Really. (But did you see what happened THEN!?)

However, quite often you hear this sentence when someone is made aware of the careless littering of the latest cigarette butt. Even if you know that person. For example if you’re sitting together on a wall in your front yard and you’re talking about exactly this issue.

It only takes five to ten seconds until the new world record holder in cigarette-butt-long-flipping is standing there with a similarly shocked expression, realizing what he just did, and trying to turn back time with a hasty motion.

“I don’t do that either. Whenever I’m smoking on the move, I look for the next ashtray when I’m done,” the person says. And after a final drag of the cigarette, he looks stoically into the distance, exhales appreciatively and *SNAP* sends the cigarette butt flying through the air. The butt then skims three times and goes far enough to make every little child that ever tried this with a stone on water stand there with a pale face, mouth agape. Or to make your facial features derail. Because that actually happened. Then it only takes five to ten seconds until the new world record holder in cigarette-butt-long-flipping is standing there with a similarly shocked expression, realizing what he just did, shouting “Oh no!” and trying to turn back time with a hasty motion.

In such a moment you realize something yourself, too. Suddenly it becomes clear to you that people often don’t throw away their cigarette remains out of spite, thinking “Take this, Mother Earth, take this!” Besides, most of them don’t even know what these little devils contain. The flipping just seems to have become such a habit that you could almost count it as part of our culture.

What’s even so bad about it?

At the start of our Nordsee Clean Up, we took on the task of raising awareness for the dangers of cigarette butts. They don’t make for a nice view when they’re spread on the floor everywhere. Sure, we agree on that I would think. Can’t have too good of an impact on the environment either, right? They’re made of plastic? Correct. Well, unfortunately, that’s not all. 

It takes 10 to 15 years until a cigarette butt is rotten. That is quite fast, isn’t it? The remains of the cigarettes that were smoked when George W. Bush started his second term as President of the United States should be gone by now. But don’t celebrate just yet. Rotten does not mean vanished. It means decomposed into tiny pieces that then embark on a journey all over the world, bathing in our oceans and ending up in the human body. This way, we ingest about five grams of plastic every week. This is equivalent to the weight of a credit card. Every. Week.

Still, cigarette butts don’t take on a prominent role on our menus. They don’t taste well, are not really digestible and don’t look very appetizing either.

According to the World Health Organization, each cigarette butt contains about 2 mg nicotine and up to 7,000 other chemicals, many of them harmful or even known to cause cancer.

Another problem: According to the World Health Organization, each cigarette butt contains about 2 mg nicotine and up to 7,000 other chemicals, many of them harmful or even known to cause cancer. With so many ingredients, the recipe for cigarettes must be more secret than that of Coca-Cola. But for a filter, the name says it all. It filters most of the pollutants and doesn’t release them until it comes into contact with water. Good for the smoker. Not so much for wherever the used filter ends up. Wet sand on a playground or a beach where children play. A puddle on the street from which a dog drinks. Everywhere it rains. By that we don’t mean to say to dispose of all the cigarette butts in Wadi Halfa in Sudan just because it is one of the places with the lowest rainfall (one time it went a full 19 years without rain). Instead, we want to point out that the little stumps contain much more than meets the eye. And water rinses it all out. A short downpour and all the chemicals are on their way into our groundwater. The big puddle we all like to drink from.

There are already clever solutions

A single cigarette butt won’t ruin our environment though, will it? Probably not. But the amount does it. In 2014, there were about 2.7 million cigarette butts per square kilometer in Berlin alone. That equals almost 19,300 Stück per soccer field, as German tv show Galileo would say. If you transfer that number to an average apartment in Germany (91,8 m2), you would find about 248 cigarette butts there.

Convenient pocket ashtrays for when you’re on the move. Picture: Perpetuum Mobility e. V.

A fitting solution does not seem to exist yet (if you don’t consider it a solution that everyone just takes care of his or her own butts). No wonder there now is an initiative in Germany that demands a kind of deposit on cigarette waste. 20 cents per piece. If that is adopted, we are the first ones to run around in with gloves and a bag. It’s not like we weren’t already doing that anyway (*cough* Nordsee Clean Up *cough*). But 2.7 million times 20 Cent? That is, let me calculate… a whole lot of money!

Another possibility are pocket ashtrays. A little click-clack can made of aluminum that you can conveniently carry in your pocket. If you are outside smoking and don’t see an ashtray anywhere, you have the solution right with you. Making sure everyone always carries the pocket ashtray with them is a whole other story though.

What if the easiest solution of them all would somehow work after all? Sure, that sounds ridiculous. But maybe it is possible to motivate people to throw away their trash properly. How that is supposed to work? A British company has developed a plan. The trick: awaken the play instinct in humans. The result: the Ballot Bin. How it works: a small box, split in the middle, resulting in two equal cases. Each case has an opening through which you can throw the cigarette butts and a transparent front so you can see how much waste there is in each case. And now the highlight: there is a question written on the top of the box and each case stands for an answer.  

Giving waste a meaning

For the important questions: the Ballot Bin. Picture: Hubbub Enterprise.

Each cigarette butt now gets a vote, so to say, instead of ending up on the street somewhere. That way you can express if Star Trek is better than Star Wars (haha), if there will ever be another winner of the German soccer championship than Bayern München (hahaha) or if you just like to pollute the environment. Well, the latter only if you throw away your trash right in front of the Ballot Bin. But that is just less fun if you can answer a witty question.

That way you can express if Star Trek is better than Star Wars (haha), if there will ever be another winner of the German soccer championship than Bayern München (hahaha) or if you just like to pollute the environment.

Companies or communities can even use these (maybe not all that representative) surveys to their advantage. In a designated smoking area at work you could have a vote about the food in the canteen. At a public green space you could ask if people would prefer to have a playground or an urban gardening project. In front of a government agency you could find out if people are happy with the waiting times. Where else do you have so much power? You might even think twice if you really don’t want to be a smoker. (Don’t become a smoker because of this, though.) (Seriously.)

There are even a few suppliers with similar ideas in Germany now. TobaCycle even takes it a step further. They are making their conatiners from old cigarette waste. That’s a real cigarette circle.

Is that the solution for everything? Probably not. Ultimately, these ashtrays are still depending on the smokers to actually use them. But it is a great idea to make people aware of this problem. Even though it is only a small step, every step in the right direction counts. Now everyone can be part of the solution and even have a little fun on the way. And if everyone does it, then we really have a solution to the problem. Maybe it even helps strengthen our feeling for cohesion. Even if it is only about one of the oldest questions of all: Do you prefer cats or dogs?


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