Cigarette smoking numbers have been dwindling nationwide, but cigarette butts never go away.
The habit still produces what is, reportedly, the most pervasive litter problem in the nation – and one of the most worse on the planet.
And there are fewer places absorbing as many of those butts as Philadelphia, where smoking rates still trouble city health officials. Among the 30 largest U.S. cities, Philly ranks second (below Detroit) with the highest smoking rates, according to a 2017 Pew Trusts Philadelphia Research Initiative report. While there are many discussions and initiatives on what the city should do about it, the effort to limit the spread of those carcinogenic-spitting critters is lacking, particularly in low-income neighborhoods that need it the most.
According to the Keep America Beautiful group, cigarette butts are the most littered item in the nation. In KAB’s 2009 “Litter In America,” the group estimated an “overall littering rate for cigarette butts [of] 65%, and tobacco products comprise 38% of all U.S. roadway litter.”
This isn’t just a problem nationwide. The idea of cigarette butts as a major part of the overall litter footprint is globally accepted. KAB’s Australian counterpart, Keep Australia Beautiful, has kept tabs on cigarette butt litter over the past few decades, discovering that it’s the most persistent form of litter across the continent.
Both organizations find that smokers don’t see tossing butts as inappropriate. In fact, most believe they’re being helpful by dropping butts to the ground and stomping the flame out. And as ecoWURD finds, most smokers cite a lack of proper receptacles for their butts – and claim they would use them if visible to the eye.
BARS AND BUTTS
Philly is a bigtime bar town. A stroll through Fishtown, Northern Liberties, Old City, Fairmount, and University City, among other neighborhoods, features some of the town’s most notable watering holes. Outside of these businesses, folks grabbing a smoke with friends is a common sight – along with smokers mindlessly flicking their butts to the ground as many before them have done for centuries. Reflexive cigarette tossing is compounded by all patrons viewing this non-stop litter exercise as an unwitting license to pile more trash on top of it.
The entry to some of these businesses – referred to as “transition points” by many anti-litter advocates – lack proper ways to discard cigarette butts. Even though many establishments provide receptacles for butts, it’s hard to determine an exact number of spaces who do. As a result, broader efforts by the city have been in motion to eradicate cigarette tips on the ground.
Some organizations have even found ways to recycle what seems like the unrecyclable.
TerraCycle, a Trenton, N.J.-based organization founded by Tom Szaky, a former Princeton University student, aims to capitalize on butt-tossing culture. By way of a Philly.com profile , bars across the city can purchase a $99 flame and weather resistant box for placement at the transition points. Subcontractors then take the waste to a processing center in Trenton, which transfers it to a Midwest plant where the material is broken down to a reusable state. That material builds ashtrays, fence posts, and even park benches.
TerraCycle has only been in operation for six years, but its goal to recycle all manner of waste is ambitious. An attempt made by ecoWURD to get hard numbers on how many receptacles are sold and distributed proved fruitless. “We don’t keep track of how many receptacles have been sold,” said a TerraCycle spokesperson. “We also have confidentiality agreements in place for our current customers.” Make Philadelphia Beautiful, an organization that receives grant money to install those receptacles, didn’t return our calls for comment on their business with Terracycle.
PHILADELPHIA IS A SMOKING CAPITOL
Meanwhile, Philly is still a bit of a smokestack.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed in its 500 Cities report that Philadelphia ranked second among major American cities that smoke the most. More than a quarter of the population reported themselves as smokers, falling behind Detroit, MI at nearly 30 percent and tied with Louisville, KY, yet edging out Memphis, TN at fourth.
Tobacco Free Kids recently examined the effects of the landmark 20-year old $246 billion Master Settlement Agreement between cigarette manufacturers and Attorneys General of 46 states. It revealed that many states are still underfunding tobacco prevention and cessation programs, and that includes the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania spent just $15.8 million in Fiscal Year 2018 … far short of the CDC’s recommended $140 million, or just a little over 11 percent of the recommended total. Incidentally, that same report discovered that, in the meantime, Big Tobacco spent $415 million in Pennsylvania-targeted marketing funds.
Yet, nearly 13 percent of smokers are high school students, along with an estimated annual health care cost to the state of $6.3 billion.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR THE BUTTS?
The city has responded to its cigarette butt litter issue by supporting a pair of small measures that highlighted the TerraCycle group: Keep Philadelphia Beautiful (KPB), and the North Broad Renaissance (NBR). Race is a factor in that clean-up effort even if the city doesn’t mention it. Black neighborhoods are the ones most impacted by litter, as seen via Clean PHL’s Litter Index map. But the litter-free strategies in those locations are limited.
Clean PHL points to “Helping Philly Communities Combat Cigarette Litter with Keep Philadelphia Beautiful” and touts the Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet joining forces with KPB. This program would provide microgrants to neighborhood groups that would purchase cigarette butt litter receptacles. Among the grant money recipients Clean PHL named – including Fishtown Neighbors Association, the People’s Emergency Center, Chinatown Community Development Corporation, and Mayfair Community Development Corporation – none were Black. were the groups Clean PHL named as grant money recipients.
Attempts to find out which neighborhoods put up receptacles was not easily determined. The Clean PHL page also doesn’t fully list where receptacles are getting placed, but asked readers to tweet images during their jaunts in West Philly, Fishtown, Mayfair, and Chinatown to its social media accounts.
The “That’s Your Butt!” campaign from NBR was also profiled on Clean PHL’s page, highlighting how the program routinely conducts surveys along the bustling North Broad corridor. In NBR’s 2017 State of North Broad report, it determined that cigarette litter was a top culprit. NBR also received support from Keep Philadelphia Beautiful to place receptacles along the corridor at a cost just shy of $12,000.
BUTT LITTER AND THE BLACK PUBLIC GOOD
Efforts made by community organizations and the city itself point to a need to raise awareness on how to combat cigarette litter. Yet, based on data and public documents found online, there isn’t much emphasis on Philadelphia’s poor communities of color. Low-income Black Philadelphians, appear frozen out of the large-scale efforts at environmental balance. A 2017 The Rooftop blog riffs on what the author experienced walking through North Philly. He echoes a common refrain from organizers and other sources that these issues affecting Black communities the most are – at best – low-tier priorities.
“Litter represents a much larger issue than laziness or ineptness,” Rooftop notes.It’s also a municipality issue, where trash and its environmental impact pales in comparison with the daily struggles of abject poverty. Does Black Philly see this issue as something it can collectively work to solve? Rooftop’s thoughts are centered, for example, on how the influence of Black churches can factor into reversing the troubled state of Philadelphia’s environment.
The city maintains – via its Streets department and the efforts of Clean PHL, as well as Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet – that all litter (especially cigarette butts) remains a priority worth tackling. Yet, it’s unclear if those efforts extend beyond the bustling bars and businesses and into the less tidy hoods that have fallen into disrepair. If education and elimination is the key, finding a simple pathway to help make all of Philadelphia as litter-free as possible must be a priority, too.