Personal Hygiene and Cigarette Butts: Reflections from a Trash Run

Back Cove Trail  Photo by Phil Poirier
Back Cove Trail Photo by Phil Poirier

On Saturday Becca and I went out for a Trash Run after some morning yoga.  We decided to tackle the Back Cove Trail  in Portland, ME .  As with any Trash Run, there were discoveries of remarkable trash and new trash running terminology (see end of post for new terms).  On this day, there was a definite theme for the bigger items we found – personal hygiene items made of plastic.  Some of the more interesting items in this category included:

  • 4 tampon applicators
  • 2 combs
  • 1 set of green tweezers
  • 1 toothbrush
  • 1 stick of lip balm
  • A partially used stick of deodorant

You may be asking yourself, “Why is someone throwing tampon applicators along a jog/ walk trail?”  The answer is, people are probably not dumping their personal hygiene products.  Much of the trash we picked up probably comes from the streets of Portland and gets deposited into the cove from a storm drain.  If someone does not pick it up, it will make its way into the Atlantic, catch a ride on some ocean currents, and probably end up with its other trash friends at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

We had hoped to cover the entire 3.5-mile loop around the cove but barely got out of the parking lot. There is one simple reason for this-CIGARETTE BUTTS!  We spent over an hour and a half picking up hundreds of the nasty little butts (and forced ourselves to walk by a bunch so we could actually get away from the parking lot).  In that time we covered less than a quarter of a mile. Our trash run quickly turned into a “butt stroll”.

While it is difficult to estimate the number of cigarette butts that are littered each year, they are commonly considered the most littered item in the world.

Not only are these butts a big contributor to landfills and an eyesore for our parks, roadways, and sidewalks, they are a hazard to nature.  While most people may think that cigarette filters are made from cotton and thus biodegradable, that assumption could not be further from the truth.  95% of cigarette filters are made from cellulose acetate, a plastic that is slow to degrade (estimates from 1.5 – 10 years).  During this time, the butts have a good chance of ending up in our waterways (18% of all litter does), which endangers marine life that mistakes the debris for food.

A depressing problem, right?  Well that’s if you look at it as a problem.  What if you look at this as an opportunity?  Here is the thing, cellulose acetate has many other uses including:

  • Apparel: linings, blouses, dresses, wedding and party attire, home furnishings, draperies, upholstery and slip covers. (Really show people what a die-hard smoker you are!)
  • Industrial uses: filters (other than cigarettes), ink reservoirs for fiber tip pens.
  • High absorbency products: diapers and surgical products.
  • Award ribbons: Rosettes for equestrian events, dog/cat shows, corporate awards, advertising and identification products.

What if we created the infrastructure to collect cigarette butts, purify them, and re-manufacture them into new materials?  What if we provided an incentive for people to submit them (and not coupons for additional cigarettes)?  What if part of the proceeds from the products sold from the new material went to support youth smoking prevention campaigns?  It may be a crazy idea, but most people thought Columbus’s idea that the world was round was pretty crazy too.

New Trash Running Terminology
Baited – while trash running/hiking/strolling along a body of salt water, you bend down to pick up that piece of trash. But alas, it is a natural gift from the sea. Old net? Nope-dried seaweed. Bit of hard plastic? Nope-crustacean shell. (Good thing you opted out of the harder lunges in yoga. You’ll need those thigh muscles today!)

For some other trash running recaps from Atayne’s contest with I Run Far check out these blogs.  If you did a write up on your blog, please post the link as a comment.

14 responses to “Personal Hygiene and Cigarette Butts: Reflections from a Trash Run

  1. Funny that you bring up the cigarette butts! After a long run with my ultrarunning group on Sunday, a few of us stood around discussing the trash running contest and someone asked if you’re able to turn cigarette butts into something else…she suggested socks, I think. But, slip covers, who’d have thought! Great job on the trash run! I do have a new idea for trash running that one of my UR club members, Sarah, suggested. I’ll have to bounce it off of you soon 🙂

  2. Thanks Paige. Can’t wait to hear new idea!

  3. WOW Jeremy…what an eye opener about the cigarette butts…I’ve never smoked so I haven’t given this much thought. I will now…I’ll have to start trash walking. My walking route at work is pretty clean…I don’t notice much trash…I’ll start paying closer attention. Great read! Jill :O)

  4. Thanks Paige for bringing the socks-from-butts up. It was me who suggested that.

    I’m really fed up with the whole idea that people think it’s socially acceptable to throw cigarette butts on the ground. Who’s to stop it from happening? Even the cops do it.

    Is there a way to convert the filters into maybe socks. I’ve seen online that they were recycled and helped made into sweaters.

    I think I know the new idea, but I’ll let you provide the details Paige.

    • I honestly think people don’t understand the potential hazard. I think there is an assumption that the cigarette butts will biodegrade in no time. Not that I am trying to justify the littering.

  5. good blog, jeremy! i hate hate hate cigarette butts, i swear i blow a gasket whenever i see someone thowing one to the ground. do you remember when RPM did the trash collecting on washington? i couldn’t believe the amount i picked up, and whenever i do a beach cleaning, cigarette butts are by far the most we find. ugh ugh ugh! i’m getting angry just typing this! 😡

    oh, and those tampon applicators may not all find their way to the great pacific garbage patch; they may actually find their way into the mouth of a marine animal, who will then choke on it and die! 😡 ugh ugh ugh!! (did i type that already?).

    anyhow, again, thanks for the info; always an eye opener. oh, and you should’ve added the “butt stroll” into the new trash running terminology. LMAO!

    • Dinah, you crack me up and I fully agree on the “butt stroll”. Definition – when a trash run is turned into a mere stroll because of the need to pick up a bunch of cigarette butts left by trasholes.

  6. This blog is right up my alley, and I love the ideas being shared and brainstormed here.

  7. Ha! Butt stroll, that’s brilliant!

  8. Love your blog! Cigarette butts should have a penny refund on them, like bottles and cans here in Maine is 5 cents. That might make smokers think about throwing a penny out the window. A habit that needs to be broken.

  9. That’s a great idea Phil! If the refund was maybe 10 cents, I’ll bet that would really get those smokers thinking. Then when we are picking up those dirty butts that they throw out- we could collect on the 10 cents and donate the money to Atayne.
    There are millions of the nasty things out there everywhere !!

  10. It’s funny how people who wouldn’t otherwise dream of littering don’t see dropping butts as “littering”. I don’t get it.

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