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No Easy Solution For Cigarette Butts On The Beach

Cigarette butts are a common sight on Central Coast beaches. They're not only gross, they can also harm wildlife. Still, finding a solution to this problem is proving difficult.

As the marine layer dissolves at Cowell Beach in Santa Cruz, about 50 people search the sand for cigarette butts. This beach is non-smoking, but these volunteers will find plenty.

They're all here for a morning beach cleanup hosted by Save Our Shores and the Santa Cruz County Tobacco Education Coalition. One of those volunteers is Dan Haifley. He searches with a bucket in one hand and a checklist in the other.

“I see another cigarette butt right up ahead here,” Haifley says.

Haifley has volunteered at beach cleanups since the 80s. He’s worked in ocean conservation just as long and helped establish the Monterey Bay as a National Marine Sanctuary.

“You know, if we mess with the ocean we're messing with ourselves,” says Haifley.

While small, cigarette butts cause big problems for the ocean. The filters are made of plastic and absorb the cigarette’s chemicals. According to the American Lung Association, some of those chemicals include arsenic and nicotine. Haifley says marine animals can mistake them for food and the butts can also leach those chemicals into the water.

“The ocean is the source of 50 percent of our oxygen. It absorbs excess greenhouse gases from climate change. The more we mess with it, the more of a problem we have.”

On this day, volunteers didn't just clean up. They replaced the cigarette butts with artwork; three-foot handmade cigarette replicas. Some of the messages on them read “toxic waste” or “bad for your health, bad for the planet”.  

Dozens of these signs eventually dotted the sand. The purpose of this art installation was to show how big of a problem cigarette butts are. According to the non-profit Ocean Conservancy, cigarette butts are the most common piece of trash found on beaches worldwide.  

Tara Leonard works for the Santa Cruz County Tobacco Education and Prevention Program.  She says current methods to reduce cigarette butt litter are not working.

“How many of us have seen a dozen cigarette butts within a foot of a trash can? How many of us have seen people smoking within several yards of the no-smoking sign? So yes, you can say that we need enforcement. But what we really need is higher level policy issues that keep cigarettes and cigarette butts from getting to these places in the first place,” says Leonard.

She says it’s time to make tobacco companies responsible for the waste instead of smokers.

That’s something California Assemblymember Mark Stone has tried and failed to do for years. Three times he’s introduced a bill to ban cigarettes with filters in California (AB 2308). He cites research that shows filters don’t actually protect the smoker. Again this year, the bill didn’t make it out of committee.

“The big win in this time around, even though we didn't get the policy passed, was we finally got the policy committee to recognize the truth about the health impacts of the filters or the lack thereof,” says Stone.

Stone says another solution would be to ban smoking on state beaches. Legislation to do that is awaiting Governor Jerry Brown's signature (SB 836). However, Brown vetoed a similar bill last year.


For his part, Assemblymember Stone plans to keep pushing legislation to address this problem. 


“Sometimes policymaking is educating and repeating and trying again. It took how many years to get the ban on texting while driving done? Sometimes new concepts take a while to go through,” says Stone.

As the beach cleanup wraps up, Dan Haifley puts another cigarette butt in his bucket and adds a tally mark to his checklist.

“I will continue to come out and clean up the beach until legislation to ban smoking and to ban trash on the beach has passed and I will continue to afterwards because there will still be a need for it,” says Haifley.

In just two hours at Cowell Beach, volunteers ended up collecting more than 500 cigarette butts. People can also help out on September 15. That’s when Ocean Conservancy is hosting their 33rd Annual International Coastal Cleanup.

Erika joined KAZU in 2016. Her roots in radio began at an early age working for the independent community radio station in her hometown of Boulder, Colorado. After graduating from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University in 2012, Erika spent four years working as a television reporter. She’s very happy to be back in public radio and loves living in the Monterey Bay Area.
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