We’ll start with cigarette butts because they claim the unfortunate prize of the highest littered item on the planet, with 4.95 trillion butts littered on an annual basis in the world, weighing approximately 2 billion pounds. People around the globe litter cigarette butts for all kinds of reasons, but a frequent reason is that people don’t know that the filters are made of plastic. Butts are comprised of cellulose acetate, which can take 25 years to biodegrade. In addition to this, like all plastics, cigarette butts that wash into waterways are mistaken as food, so they have been consumed by and found in fish, birds, sea turtles and other marine creatures. Cigarette butts cannot be digested by animals, and they pose an even larger threat as they contain toxic chemicals like lead and arsenic, which leach into and accumulate in ecosystems.
How can we prevent this type of pollution? In the spring of 2016, Surfrider Pacific Rim launched the Hold On To Your Butt Campaign with the aims of making cigarette butts the last socially acceptable form of litter. Through this campaign, we have set up 83 cigarette canisters throughout the Pacific Rim, which people can responsibly put their butts in. Our volunteer team collects the butts from the canisters, which are then sent to Terracycle to be recycled, finding a new life in items like plastic pallets and lumber. In the last two years, 350K butts have been recycled through this campaign. Individuals can also sign up to Terracycle and send butts back for free! Individuals can also switch from plastic to biodegradable filters, like Greenbutts, which are filters that are made of hemp, flax, and cotton. Greenbutts filters rapidly degrade and if they are not will also dissipate in water within a few minutes.
Now, what do many people who try to give up smoking do? Chew nicotine gum. Ironically, the second most prevalent form of litter in the world is gum. Chewing gum sounds innocent enough, conjuring youthful memories, making the breath fresher after a cig has been smoked, providing a fix of sugar, what could be so bad? Original chewing gum, chicle, was made from sapodilla sap, which is biodegradable, but like most things, industry found a way to make a synthetic version, which is what makes up all of the mainstream brands we find in stores. This version is made from synthetic rubbers, which is derived from fossil fuels and concocted with additives, preservatives, and dyes. One of the most common polymers in gum is polyisobutylene, the same material that covered birds after the BP oil spill. Like all other polymers, gum is not biodegradable. This means it will not break down in landfills, in waterways, other ecosystems, or in animals. In addition to this, gum also comes in plastic packaging, which cannot be accepted by many recycling companies, and so this packaging is also sent to landfill or littered.
Next time you walk down the street, look at the sidewalk, and you will see a mural made up of all different size, shapes, and tones of gum. These splotches have actually become so normalized that we do not even notice them now! With your eye now sharpened, you will see it everywhere. Big cities use pressure washers to remove this sticky pollutant from streets, continually wasting tonnes of fresh water for this application. From here, littered gum’s best hope is in the landfill, or it will be washed down a storm drain after being pried off by a pressure washer. In the UK alone, it costs councils £150 million pounds a year to remove chewing gum litter from city streets.
Now, what can be done about chewing gum litter? For one, we don’t have to chew. There are many other ways we can freshen our breath – with mint, water, tea, or even just the scandalous act of brushing our teeth. Or, we can buy natural chewing gum with the biodegradable chicle base, natural brands include Simply Gum and Glee Gum. If you must chew, you can also go on your own natural gum scavenger hunt in Tofino, here is one hint: one of the places with natural gums rhymes with clean troll. Again, no matter what type of gum we chew, we need to dispose of it responsibly in a waste receptacle. Circular innovation has also been applied to chewing gum, a company called Gumdrop has created recycling bins just for gum! Gum collected from these bins are then recycled into new products, so now people’s chewing gum can find a way into a closed loop system over a destitute existence stuck to streets; gaining a second life in reusable coffee mugs, frisbees, rulers, combs, forks – you name it! Gumdrop is recycling gum into all kinds of functional materials, which will also help us cut our addiction to single-use plastics.
As we work to Rise Above Plastics, starting with the District of Tofino and District of Ucluelet’s single-use plastic regulation bylaws – which begins with straws and bags this June, we must go forward in eliminating more forms of unnecessary and damaging plastics from our lives. We are in a major turning point for addressing plastic pollution, and we all have a part to play at this crucial time. As Robin Williams said in the Dead Poets Society, “to quote from Whitman, ‘the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.’ What will your verse be?”
To learn more about the District of Tofino and District of Ucluelet’s Single-use plastic regulation bylaws, visit tofino.ca/plastics and ucluelet.ca/plastics. To learn more about how you can recycle cigarette butts, and to find locations for all recycling canisters, visit pacificrim.surfrider.org/campaigns/hold-on-to-your-butt/!