By Shelly Ericksen (Surfrider - San Francisco Chapter Hold on to Your Butt Program Lead) & Mia Sullivan (Surfrider - San Francisco Chapter Content Director)
Despite the fact that cigarette smoking is on a steep decline, cigarette butts remain the top littered item in San Francisco, and the most common item found on beaches around the world. They’re easy to miss, but once you see them, you’ll never “unsee” them. Surfrider San Francisco’s Hold on to Your Butt program has one ambitious goal: to end cigarette litter so we never have to see those butts again. Through volunteer power, the program works to bring awareness to the environmental impact of the cigarette flick.
Cigarette butts can collect and leach toxins, including heavy metals, which can be potentially harmful to children and wildlife. Over time, the cigarette filter, made of thousands of tiny strands of a plastic-like substance called cellulose acetate, breaks up into microplastics that will never be retrieved.
The NOAA Marine Debris Prevention Grant has given us the unique and invaluable opportunity to dig deep into smoker behavior and use this information to design innovative solutions to prevent cigarette litter. Through the three-year grant, we aim to reduce cigarette litter in San Francisco by up to 1 million butts per year by providing infrastructure for proper cigarette disposal, raising awareness that cigarette butts are toxic and behave like plastic, and changing smokers’ litter-related behavior.
We’re trying to remove the bias of our opinions and experience and have partnered with the behavioral analysis firm Root Solutions to design a survey to get to the root causes of cigarette littering. We’ve been out in the streets of San Francisco surveying smokers and handing out pocket ashtrays. Smokers are overwhelmingly grateful to receive the pocket ashtray and most have never seen one before.
The results of our survey will inform behavior-changing strategies. Then, we’ll take those strategies and put them into action by working with the community-based social marketing firm, InterEthnica, to develop culturally sensitive messages that we’ll spread throughout San Francisco to encourage behavior change.At the same time, we are working with the National Park Service and the City of San Francisco to provide buttcans: infrastructure critical to abating cigarette litter. Everyone needs trash cans to dispose of their regular trash; smokers need butt cans to do the same (and avoid starting a trash fire!). We will be installing nearly 200 buttcans in cigarette “hotspots” where we observe high concentrations of cigarette butts and monitoring their use through the three-year grant period.
We are also conducting quarterly cigarette litter audits in four coastal areas around San Francisco to establish a baseline for the cigarette litter “status quo” to quantify the impacts of our efforts.
Through infrastructure and behavior change, we aim to keep cigarette butts out of our waterways and safeguard our Marine Protected Areas. While our goal of removing 1 million butts per year from the marine environment won’t end cigarette butt litter, our aim is to create a blueprint for other cities to replicate. Perhaps together, with the work of other like-minded organizations, we can end cigarette litter.