I have a hard time writing about cigarette butts anymore because, quite frankly, I am tired of playing the same broken, eco-nihilist violin. I compose this column sitting next to my father while he watches a nature documentary, and at the solemn drop in tone from the intellectual and quippy British-accented narrator, he lamented “oh I hope they don’t show us that bird with cigarette lighters in its gut.”
Clearly I’ve taught him the punch line already, if there’s one thing that environmentalists can do well its share the gloom while pushing the power of individual penance for corporate sins. So if he just doesn’t buy the products or picks up tobacco waste at the beach, will we really get out of this mess?
In 2016, I joined a fierce group of public health advocates that has given me new hope for environmental activism; the Santa Cruz County Tobacco Education Coalition (TEC), where I serve as co-chair. The TEC is a community group that advocates for a tobacco-free lifestyle and environment. It is open to all community members and is an inspiring intersection of environmentalists and public health champions, representing two sectors that, not-so-surprisingly, share significant overlap in goals.
What I’ve rallied behind in tobacco waste reduction and working with the TEC is that there is a clear public enemy number one, and it’s not the individual consumer. No, not the smoker. And no, not even the smoker who is so disgusted by the smell of the cigarette butt that they litter it. There is no shaming of those who have smoked or still smoke today.
According to Statista, in 2019 the U.S. market value of the tobacco industry increased by 12%, hovering at more than $130 billion with further growth projected for 2020. This industry is notorious for spending said billions on advertising and in politics, making addiction and environmental chaos seem inevitable.
According to Ocean Conservancy, cigarette butts were the most littered item found at the 2019 International Coastal Cleanup with a disturbing 5.7 million collected worldwide. Big Tobacco has spent the better part of a century creating products that, when used exactly how they are intended, kill people and wreak havoc on earth’s natural systems. The TEC recognizes that we need to focus energy on the industry directly or spend the next 100 years reeling from their latest wave of waste; e-cigarettes.
“E-cigs” or “vapes,” such as the popular brand JUUL, contain batteries, single-use plastic pods that are not recyclable, and can leech heavy metals, residual nicotine, and chemicals from e-juices. These components qualify many vape products as both electronic waste and hazardous waste, creating a dual classification that complicates their proper disposal and recycling. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, as of 2017, there were 565 types of e-cig devices on the U.S. market, 184 of which were single-use.
Young people are getting hooked on tobacco at rates that unravel 20 years of progress, lured by modern tech devices with candy- and fruit-flavored juices. According to Tobacco Free California, more than 80% of teens who smoke first started with a flavored product, and four out of five kids who vape nicotine use flavors. The rapid growth of e-cigs coupled with the exponential uptick in candy-flavored e-juice addiction has led to a health epidemic among youth recognized by the FDA and through Executive Order by California’s Governor Newsom in September 2019.
A study released in October 2019 by UC San Francisco found high schools in the bay are being contaminated by plastics and litter from e-cigs. That same month, Newsom signed a statewide smoking ban on California state beaches, and included e-cig devices in its definition, representing the growing need along our coast to address this new and increasing form of debris.
“Extended Producer Responsibility, or EPR, is a way to reframe the policy discussion about tobacco waste, redirecting it from individual smokers to the real culprits,” said Tara Leonard, a Health Educator in the Tobacco Education and Prevention Program at the Santa Cruz County Health Services Agency. “EPR policies look at the entire lifecycle of a tobacco product from design to disposal and asks with whom responsibility should lie. Why are school children and volunteers picking up tobacco waste on our streets and beaches? Because the tobacco industry has externalized the true cost of their business, placing a burden on the public to clean up their mess. EPR policies tell Big Tobacco that it’s time to clean up their own waste — or better yet, design their products so that waste is no longer such an overwhelming issue.”
Examples include making biodegradable cigarette filters or eliminating butts altogether, instigating take-back programs for used e-cig devices, requiring safer disposal instructions on all e-cig packaging, and imposing a fee on tobacco producers to offset cleanup costs.
Local residents are highly supportive of such policies according to Leonard. In a recent public poll, 94% of Santa Cruz residents overwhelmingly agreed that cigarette butts and other tobacco litter are a problem in our community. “Survey results show a clear picture of local constituents who are concerned about tobacco waste and supportive of a policy solution that holds tobacco companies responsible,” Leonard said. “They also reveal a growing concern about new forms of tobacco waste, such as e-cigarette waste.”
The TEC, working with community partners, has seen recent success. In 2019, the City and County of Santa Cruz, City of Capitola, and the City of Watsonville all banned the sale of flavored tobacco products. Watsonville took it a step further and banned the sale of e-cig devices. Leonard explains that “While our first concern is the health and safety of youth, human and environmental health are inextricably linked. Any reduction in the number of these items sold is going to translate to less toxic waste.”
Leonard encourages collective movement. “If you’re concerned about this issue, contact your local policymakers. Let them know you’d like to see stricter waste regulations on vaping-related products and all tobacco. It’s important to push back, because this is an industry that has never once done the right thing unless forced to through legal action!”
Don’t make me show you that bird with cigarette lighters in its gut.
For information about the TEC, please visit www.santacruzhealth.org/tobacco.
Rachel Kippen is the executive director of O’Neill Sea Odyssey. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.