ABC cigarette butts

Staff from Ability Building Center pick up cigarette butts from the street on the 300 block of Broadway Avenue South Monday, July 1.

Sometimes a single image can spur action and galvanize a movement.

An image of a bird feeding a cigarette butt to a chick on a St. Petersburg beach, captured by Karen Mason, might be that.

The photo has gone viral and has provided a visual for a big problem.

Trillions of butts are thrown into the environment each year, according to the Cigarette Butt Pollution Project. Cigarette butts are the most littered item found during nonprofit Ocean Conservancy’s global beach cleanups.

Cigarette butts contain plastic and toxins that are bad for the environment and, like the photo shows, can be mistaken for food by wildlife.

Businesses, city governments and other organizations do what they can to try to stem the tide.

Each year since 2011, “Butt Kickers” of John Adams Middle School collects tens of thousands of cigarette butts off the streets of downtown Rochester. The Rochester Downtown Alliance and the Rochester Park Department team up to donate a nickel for each cigarette butt to the John Adams Science Alive! Lab.

RDA also contracts with Ability Building Center for downtown cigarette butt cleanup.

Collection efforts like those help clean up butts off the streets in downtown but they’re a long way from stemming the tide of pollution.

One problem is that cigarette butts remain one of the last socially acceptable pollutants.

According to ongoing anti-smoking campaign Truth Initiative, 75 percent of smokers report tossing cigarette butts out of car windows. About 65 percent of smokers admit to throwing cigarette butts on the ground.

With pickup efforts being a drop in an ocean of litter and most smokers continuing to be mindless of their waste, governments are deciding to step in.

Proposed legislation in California puts the onus on cigarette producers to take responsibility for the litter smokers produce. California’s S.B. 424 would ban any tobacco products with single-use filters. Currently, that would include pretty much all manufactured cigarettes.

The law would be the most sweeping statewide restriction on tobacco in the U.S. That said, the proposal has been around since 2014 but hasn’t had enough traction to pass. However, it’s gaining traction. Similar legislation will be considered in Maine next year.

When smokers fail to be responsible with litter and cleanups can’t keep up, it likely will come down to such legislative action to address the pollution. However, it will take strong support from the public to achieve in the face of tobacco lobby spending and campaigning.

One bird on a beach in Florida might just be the catalyst for that.

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General Assignment Reporter

John joined the Post Bulletin in May 2018. He graduated from the University of Iowa in 2004 with a BA in Journalism and Japanese. Away from the office, John plays banjo, brews beer, bikes and is looking for other hobbies that begin with the letter “b.”