Cigarette butts litter the street curbs around Johnson City because drivers and pedestrians toss them out the car window or on the ground while having a smoke break instead of disposing them in a proper way. (Photos by Lee Talbert/Johnson City Press)
Have you ever been waiting for the light to change, and watched the driver of the vehicle in front of you flick their cigarette butt out of their window, or watched someone toss their butt on the ground before going into a business?
This is a common occurrence in downtown Johnson City, said Johnson City public works director Phil Pindzola, and the butts add up to become a nuisance for the city. He said, by code, businesses are mandated to clean up their own sidewalks and spaces in front of their places of work.
“We clean up downtown everyday,” Pindzola said. “We know in certain intersections, there will be butts piled up.”
He said to combat the problem on a serious level, the businesses should band together and form a coalition to keep the downtown area clean of litter like cigarette butts.
Keep America Beautiful, a nationwide nonprofit organization with a network of more than 1,200 affiliate and participating organizations, including state recycling organizations that oversee millions of volunteers, says cigarette butts are the most common piece of litter. Their numbers show that the litter rate for cigarette butts was at 65% in 2009, and through the organization’s efforts, that number had dropped to 53% just two years later.
KAB’s website, www.kab.org, includes information on how cigarette butts can collectively leach into the groundwater supply and destroy wildlife on a large scale level. According to a litter study by KAB, which they call the “nation’s largest litter study” says littering at one’s place of work is influenced by the amount of litter that already exists in that area.
Ariana Garrett, a manager at the Holy Taco restaurant and bar in downtown Johnson City, agrees with that claim for smokers. She said there’s so much smoking in front of their place of business, that no matter how hard they try to stay on top of keeping cigarette butts off the ground, they can't keep up.
Garrett says they use buckets of sand as a cigarette butt receptacle, and change out the sand about every three days, but people smoke so much that they end up discarding cigarette butts on the ground if there’s no room in the bucket.
“You wouldn’t believe how much sand we go through,” Garrett said. “Looking outside, I see them everywhere.”
She said the best way to fight that kind of litter in the downtown area would be to have accessible cigarette butt receptacles. As well as being accessible, Garrett said, they’d also have to not allow people to pick out half-used butts, too, as she said she’s seen people do near her business.
Like Garrett, Dick Nelson, owner of Nelson Fine Art Center, said cigarette butts really bother him.
“People treat a cigarette butt differently than other pieces of litter, and that’s the problem,” Nelson said.
He said he’s militant about keeping the space in front of his business tidy, and says because of their leaf blowing and sweeping, they don’t have as much of a problem as some of the alcohol-serving downtown businesses.
A 2011 Gallup poll showed that the state of Tennessee had the eighth highest percentage of smokers, with a rate of 25%. The state also tries to combat cigarette butt littering through its own beautification projects. They even have a way for the general public to anonymously report litters through an online hotline.
Through the Tennessee Department of Transportation, people can fill out information on the an incidence of litter they might have witnessed, and submit the details to the state. With that information, Shawn Bible, coordinator of the TDOT beautification office, said depending on the details, the state will send the person named a “nasty gram” stating that they’ve been caught littering, and how it affects the environment and tax dollars. She’s a big proponent of explaining to Tennesseans the negative impact of litter in the water supply.
“TDOT is under strict water-quality mandates, and litter is bad for the quality of water,” Bible said.
It’s an effective resource, Bible said. She said when they introduced the hotline to their site, they expected a surge in popularity and then for it to fade away, but was surprised to find it never faded away.
With the punishment, Bible believes, people will be forced to not litter. She says cigarette smokers will often not acknowledge their butts as litter, and that’s a problem.
Bible thinks the best way to combat this care-free attitude in regards to cigarette butts, is to have law enforcement to treat littering more seriously. If it doesn’t seem like much of a priority to law enforcement, Bible thinks they should look at it as an opportunity to garner probable cause to pull someone over, where other violations might surface.
Washington County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Lee Cross said while they do write tickets for littering, it’s not that common. As for using a flicked cigarette butt as means of gaining a reason to investigate someone further, he said they don’t specifically look for littering as a way to acheive that differently than any other violation.
Capt. Gerald Harrell of the Johnson City Police Department, is another big advocate for properly discarding cigarette butts. He said it’s probably from his military background, where on certain duties, he, as a non-smoker, was instructed to pick up everyone else’s butts.
He said he’ll frequently pull people over for littering, even having some discard their entire ashtray right in front of him. After making contact with them, he’ll often give them the opportunity to pick up their litter instead of receiving a citation.
The issue literally hits Harrell personally. He said as a motorcyclist, he’s been struck in the helmet with cigarette butts after the vehicle in front of him let theirs fly out of the window. It’s a dangerous thing for bikers, he said.
One program that’s been effective in combating litter, Harrell said, is the Washington County Sheriff’s Office’s Dirty Street Fighters, that will have inmates hit the county roads and highways to clean up illegal dump sites and litter. He still hears the county’s radio spots play, with Sheriff Graybeal announcing the seriousness of littering. He says he enjoys seeing the Dirty Street Fighters crew out there almost every day.
“It’s our responsibility to keep what he have as clean as possible,” Harrell said. “For us, and for future generations.”