When Karen Mason went to St. Pete Beach in Florida last week, she had planned to spend a quiet evening protecting nesting birds on the shore, something she does two or three times a week during nesting season. But what started off as a typical visit turned into a wake-up call.
The avid photographer from nearby Clearwater used a long zoom lens to snap a photo of a bird feeding its chick. What she saw when she uploaded the files to her computer and enlarged the image filled her with sorrow and rage: The tiny bird had been fed a cigarette butt.
"This little chick might have swallowed something like this, and there's no reason that people need to do this," Mason, 64, told TODAY over the phone. "Cigarette butts are not big. They can take them home with them. If they can take their cellphones, they can certainly take some tiny little cigarette butt container along with them."
According to Thomas Novotny, founder of the Cigarette Butt Pollution Project, which aims to eliminate tobacco waste from the environment, "cigarette butts are actually toxic, hazardous waste."
He added, "Ninety-nine percent of all cigarette butts are composed of the filter, which is made of a plant-based plastic, that takes years to deteriorate, never really biodegrading completely, and this allows the chemicals to continue to seep out."
Worse than plastic straws?
In fact, cigarette butts and filters are the most common litter found on beaches and in the ocean — even more so than plastic straws, which have become one of the biggest targets of environmentalists in the past year.
The Ocean Conservancy, an environmental group based in Washington, D.C., has an entire program — called Trash Free Seas, dedicated to reducing ocean debris and litter — that has organized international coastal cleanups each year since 1986.
"Cigarette butts have been the most commonly found item since the inception of our cleanup, with more than 60 million butts found on beaches and waterways over the past three decades," Nick Mallos, the director of Trash Free Seas, told TODAY. "Last year alone, more than 2.4 million butts were collected during that single day, representing more than 10% of all items of trash collected by volunteers."
Mallos added that last year, more than 96,000 cigarette butts had been collected in Florida alone.
While he cautions against conflating quantity with impact, research has shown that cigarette butts have been ranked among the top five most dangerous items for ocean animals.
Cigarette makers have also focused on preventative measures, including creating biodegradable filters, mass-distributing trashcans and ashtrays, and anti-litter campaigns. One organization, Reynolds American, the parent company of several other tobacco companies in the country, has organized cigarette butt clean-ups and other environmental measures.
"The RAI Group supports the Keep America Beautiful Cigarette Litter Prevention Program and one of its operating companies has a partnership with TerraCycle, which lets adult volunteers across the country collect cigarette butts and send them to TerraCycle, where they are combined with other recyclable materials to make useful, earth-friendly items such as lumber, furniture, containers and more," said Kaelan Hollon, the senior director of communications for Reynolds American. "To date, this partnership program has collected more than 100 million pieces of cigarette waste, an estimate based on 1 pound of cigarette waste being equal to 1,000 cigarette butts."
Old habits die hard
Despite good intentions, experts are concerned that cleanup efforts don't solve the larger problem: Cigarette smokers are in the habit of flicking the butts.
"We can put up waste bins, but they're minimally effective. People don't use them, even if they're within 10 feet,” said Novotny. "I've done cleanups; it's always surprising how many butts we find. Smokers are doing this, and somebody else has to deal with it."
Legislative attempts are also being made to reduce the sale of cigarettes with filters, which would begin to eliminate the problem. One major piece of legislation is in progress in San Francisco: a bill that would ban the sale of filtered cigarettes, reducing the number of filters and butts that can be littered. (San Francisco also recently became the first major U.S. city to ban e-cigarettes.)
"By eliminating the filter, you'd get rid of the vast majority of the trash that's produced," said Novotny, who is based in California.
Mason, meanwhile, hopes that sharing the photo will draw attention to the effects that cigarette butts, and littering in general, can have on wildlife.
"It's not at all unusual to see litter on the beaches," she said. "If not for the people who volunteer to pick up trash, you probably wouldn't even want to go to one — and I'm sure it's the same in every park in the country. It's just so unnecessary and so infuriating that people just don't care."
She added, "Hopefully some people, at least, will see the reality of what could happen to these animals."