Litter in the water (or the butt that broke the camel’s back)

I have a theory that it was not actually a straw that broke the camel’s back; it was a cigarette butt. Yes, it’s true that she was carrying far too many duffel bags and Turkish rugs. It didn’t help that the people kept referring to her as “him,” and would it have killed them to give her a sip of water along the way? When the man flicked his cigarette butt onto the trail without even a backward glance, though, that was when she stopped, reared up her head and spat out the biggest wad of spit she could muster.

My camel moment happened two years ago while driving home from Lake Maria State Park, where I had been leading an early winter hike. I hadn’t dressed right for the snowy, wet trails, and my boots and jeans were soaked. I couldn’t feel my toes, the dog and I were both covered in mud, and to top it off the non-fat vanilla cappuccino dispenser at Super America was out of order. When a woman in the car ahead of me tossed a still-glowing cigarette butt out the window, I snapped. I slammed my hand down on the steering wheel, blaring the horn as loud and as long as I dared, and then as I passed her car, I raised and shook my middle finger in rage. While sheepishly recounting the story to my friend later that day, I was caught off guard when she asked, “Is it really that big of a deal? Sure, it’s annoying, but it’s just a cigarette butt, right?”

Since 1986, the Ocean Conservancy has organized an annual beach and waterways cleanup that spans 45 states and 180 countries. While it might not make much of a dent in the Texas-sized mass of litter floating in the world’s oceans, the event involves an impressive number of volunteers and also has a unique tracking component. During each year’s cleanup, volunteers count and record every single item of trash that they find on beaches, lakeshores and riverbanks. In 2009, volunteers picked up 10,239,538 plastic and paper bags, food wrappers, caps and lids, glass and plastic bottles, plastic cups, plates, forks, knives and spoons, aluminum cans, straws and other items of debris. Most of all, the volunteers found cigarette butts  – 2,189,252 of them to be exact. In fact, cigarettes and cigarette filters constituted 21% of all the garbage collected during the 2009 cleanup. For the world’s waterways, it seems, cigarette butts are indeed a big deal.

How, though, did all of these bags, bottles and butts arrive in our rivers and oceans to begin with? Are there really that many litterbugs hanging out on the beach? To understand how millions of pounds of plastic and garbage end up floating in the sea, one needs to understand the concept of a watershed. Put simply, water flows down hill, and on its way, it picks up things along its path. A cigarette lying in the middle of a highway causes little harm until rain comes along and washes the butt off the road and into a ditch that leads to a stream, that leads to a river, that leads to a bigger river, that leads eventually to the Gulf of Mexico and out into the ocean. Multiply times one million or so, for all the roads in the world, and consider that rain also washes invisible pollutants like phosphorus, nitrogen and mercury into the water, and it’s easy to see why our oceans are in trouble, and many local lakes and streams too.

Now, I am not giving anyone out there permission to start honking and swearing at strangers who litter. If, however, you feel motivated to exercise some creative persuasion on the people you know to stop them from flicking their cigarettes onto the ground, it would certainly help me to maintain my sanity. Even better, if the spirit catches you when the snow starts to melt, take a moment to pick up the trash, leaves and other debris along the street in front of your house. The oceans will thank you, and so will the camel.