San Francisco’s Dirty Butt Problem

Supervisors Tang and Fewer spearhead a new pollution campaign targeted at beach-going cigarette smokers.

Take a stroll along Ocean Beach any weekday evening, and it’s nearly impossible to miss the little bent nubs of cigarettes buried in the sand. Few things go more nicely with a picnic lunch and a six pack of beer than a smoke, but unlike the majority of beach trash — which is thrown into torn, sandy, brown paper bags and lugged back to the parking lot — cigarette butts usually get left behind. After all, they’re tiny, so how much of a difference can they make?

Well, one tiny thing — particularly when it’s addictive — can add up quickly. Surfrider Foundation, an environmental group, recently conducted a study that found that in a two-hour cleanup, more than 4,200 butts were discovered on Ocean Beach at Noriega Street, 4,615 were collected along 19th Avenue between Lincoln Way and Taraval Street, and 6,000 were cleaned up along Balboa Street. In addition, many butts thrown on the streets in other areas of S.F. find their way into the sewers, ending up in the ocean.

The study caught the attention of two supervisors, who have hatched a plan. San Francisco Public Works made the questionable decision to remove trash cans at Ocean Beach last year, but now it’s adding tiny ones — specifically for cigarette butts — back onto the promenade.

Supervisors Katy Tang and Sandra Lee Fewer of the Sunset and Richmond districts, respectively, announced the new trash pilot program on a foggy gray morning in late June. As the Pacific winds whipped the bystanders, the pair unveiled 40 cigarette-butt ashcans — 20 for each neighborhood. Public Works will empty them regularly, and Surfrider will conduct periodic butt counts in the pilot areas to determine if the program is a success.

“San Francisco is an environmental leader, yet for some reason we have not tackled the problem of cigarette butts in an effective way,” Tang said. “We are surrounded on three sides by the very water that we are polluting. The Sunset and Richmond Districts, which are adjacent to Ocean Beach, should lead the way to encourage everyone to recognize that we should all be stewards of the environment and the water, even when we are not at the beach.”

This pollution is no small issue: Cigarette butts often contain plastic and toxic chemicals that can kill or sicken wildlife.

“Flicking cigarettes is a common habit, and many people think cigarette filters are biodegradable,” says Shelly Ericksen, a volunteer with Surfrider Foundation. “In fact, cigarette filters are made of tiny strands of cellulose acetate — the same plastic as your sunglasses. They are loaded with toxic chemicals, including arsenic, lead, and cadmium, poisoning children and animals that mistake them for food. When those chemicals leach into our oceans and groundwater, they threaten the safety of the fish we eat, and the water we drink.”

The cigarette cleanup program, titled “Hold On To Your Butt,” launched on June 30, and will last six months. If the city observes a decrease in the number of cigarettes strewn around, the ash-can program could be expanded across the city.

But in order for the program to really be a success, S.F. smokers will need to stop grinding their butts out on the sidewalk with the heel of their vintage cowboy boots, or flicking them expertly into the gutter. Hold on to those butts.

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