In February, the San Francisco school board voted to let city middle schools give condoms to students. The controversial decision made headlines. Will access to condoms encourage kids to have sex? Or is The City simply helping students have sex safely? Similar questions loom as The City considers providing resources for another stigmatized activity: smoking cigarettes.
Most people don’t need a doctor to tell them cigarettes are unhealthy. The serious risks are well known. But cigarettes’ impact on our environment is less publicized. According to a 2014 study, more than half the litter in San Francisco is tobacco-related products. The butts many smokers automatically flick to the ground are particularly problematic.
“Each little filter is composed of 12,000 plastic fibers,” Shelly Ericksen of The Surfrider Foundation, San Francisco Chapter explained to me. “They trap nickel, cadmium and other toxic materials.”
The Surfrider Foundation’s successful “Hold On To Your Butt” campaign works to eliminate cigarette litter on beaches and in the ocean. The bite-size toxic pellets can harm fish, birds and kids who ingest them. But even undigested filters pose a risk. Toxins leach into our soil and water and can cause prolonged metal contamination.
Of course, banning filters seems like an easy solution. They don’t make cigarettes healthier. In fact, American tobacco companies are forbidden to suggest filters reduce smoking risks. As Ericksen told me, they’re “a very unnecessary form of toxic litter.”
But efforts to ban filters in California have been unsuccessful. Bills introduced by Assemblymember Mark Stone of Monterey Bay have all died. Only one bill made it to a committee vote. It received two ayes out of nineteen assemblymembers. The lack of legislative support is baffling given the low benefits and high costs of cigarette filters.
Thankfully, The City is motivated to act. The Department of Environment and San Francisco State University teamed up with Ericksen at Surfrider to install San Francisco’s first cigarette-butt-recycling receptacles. Students can now drop their used filters in three receptacles around the campus’s perimeter instead of on the ground. Terracycle, the only company that recycles filters, provides the service for free.
But the program is not without its challenges. Although S.F. State became smoke-free in 2004, more S.F. State students admit to smoking a cigarette in the last 30 days than a national sample of college students. University officials struggled with the message cigarette recycling receptacles would send.
“We don’t want to encourage smoking,” Nick Kordesch, S.F. State University Sustainability Coordinator, told me. “But we don’t want to turn our existing smokers into litterers.”
Other city agencies struggle with the same challenge. While San Francisco’s parks are smoke-free areas, it’s not uncommon to see people smoking on a Saturday afternoon at Dolores Park or as they watch a show at Outside Lands.
“San Francisco doesn’t want to promote smoking,” Sunshine Swinford at the Department of Environment told me. “But people are smoking and littering and it’s costing $7 million a year. It’s a challenge. And it’s a challenge to figure out how we work with all the codes and who has authority to put up receptacles.”
The City is working through these challenges, but slowly. According to Swinford, the Department of Environment wants to see data from S.F. State’s recycling program. It’s also following the California Coastal Commission’s work to raise awareness about cigarette filters’ environmental impact.
The City’s thoughtful approach to providing filter-recycling receptacles makes sense given the controversial subject. But access to resources doesn’t necessarily encourage behavior. A condom can’t make a better argument than a middle school student’s parent. Access to green bins, public libraries and buses doesn’t mean all San Franciscans use
San Francisco agencies shouldn’t worry cigarette filter recycling receptacles will encourage smoking. They will simply help smokers keep their butts out of our parks and beaches.
“I think people want to do the right thing,” Swinford said. “They just need the resources to do it.”
Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time.