Butts off the Streets

San Rafael signals smokers with humor, direct questioning to stop littering


My best friend from childhood is a smoker. I am not. We’ve nevertheless maintained a close friendship over the years because of her thoughtfulness; she never lights up near me and she never tosses cigarette butts on the ground or in the street. I’m so accustomed to her behavior that when I see other smokers flick cigarette butts out car windows, grind them into sidewalks or toss them at plants, I just fume about it.

Thus smoldering in ignorance, it never occurred to me to do what Libby McQuiston and Laurie Sheldon have done. As volunteers for the Clean San Rafael program, McQuiston and Sheldon showed the intelligence to simply walk right up and ask smokers why they tossed those little cylinders all over the place.

“Part of our campaign was to talk to smokers. We watched people on Fourth Street who either left a butt on the sidewalk or flicked it into the planter box,” Sheldon says. “The decision we made was to get a conversation going and not to lecture.”

The cigarette-butt litter wasn’t just something that bothered the two volunteers. “We heard from proprietors,” Sheldon says, “that it was a problem, that no matter how clean they left the place, the first thing they had to do the next morning was clean the sidewalk.”

Sheldon, who has volunteered with the city’s cleanup efforts for the past three years, believes the success they’ve achieved so far in reducing cigarette-butt litter seems to be grounded in the way the questions are asked of the smokers, with a positive, nonjudgmental attitude. “We asked them whether it was just a habit,” Sheldon recalls. Some smokers said that was the case.

But largely it was something else. It turns out a lot of the littering was based in misperception. Many smokers didn’t think a cigarette butt was significant enough to be considered litter; they believed cigarette butts just kind of naturally disappeared. A cigarette filter, however, is plastic, and commercial tobacco products are reportedly laced with chemicals. “Many of them thought a cigarette butt was biodegradable,” McQuiston says. “And that it would break down in nature. But it only breaks apart. The fibers remain, and the chemicals leach out.”

Littering smokers didn’t know that tossed butts travel by storm drain, and that the Marlboro stub left on Fourth Street can end up in the stomach of a juvenile shore bird (youngsters eat anything), prompting a fatal, postmeal surprise. The questioned smokers also didn’t realize that cigarette butts contain chemicals (nearly 4,000 chemicals in cigarette smoke itself), including lead and cadmium, that can leach into waterways and harm a variety of marine life forms.

Smokers and nonsmokers alike may not be aware that seven years ago more than a million cigarette butts were picked up on the California coast in just a day—exactly 1,292,154 butts, according to data on the municipal website (www.sanrafaelclean.org ). The site also reports an annual 4.5 trillion butts dropped each year around the world, 176 million pounds of which fall on U.S. soil. No one has counted all of the cigarette butts on sidewalks in San Rafael, but the number is high enough to prompt this program to educate smokers. McQuiston, who has been working at cleaning up San Rafael sidewalks for five years, explains that “we’ve tried a lot of things, handed out ashtrays. Then we decided to focus on the smokers at restaurants and bars, because that’s where you find the most butts on the ground.”

The volunteers decided to place informational coasters in bars and restaurants. McQuiston’s son created designs of different breeds of dogs smoking, and the women shopped the concepts around town.

“We did a focus group at the bars,” Sheldon says. “We got feedback from customers and bartenders, and chose our bulldog. We’ve had excellent feedback. One bartender said it was a starting point for a conversation, something that would create humor and offer a positive way to engage smokers in a conversation about cigarette-butt litter.”

The volunteers remain optimistic. “They say their customers like them,” says McQuiston. “I haven’t heard anything negative yet.”