MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — It is “definitely gross,” “disgusting,” and an outdoor “ashtray,” according to people we talked with. Cigarette butts are the number one form of litter along our nation’s roadways.
But is it illegal to toss a cigarette on the ground? Is law enforcement doing anything about it? And how long does it take for cigarettes to break down and biodegrade?
“It really is a pet peeve of mine, because they’re so small no one is likely to take the time to pick them up,” said Natalie Wires.
But one Maplewood man, Roger Svendsen, does pick them up.
“Some refer to me as the butt man,” said Svendsen, who is a one-man cigarette butt clean-up crew.
“I think they throw the butts, thinking they’re nothing,” he said.
Svendsen walks around Lake Phelan every day, and says he picked up 65,000 butts in a year. One day he said he picked up 2,074 in one day.
“People obviously don’t consider butts to be even litter,” he said.
But police think differently.
“It is. It’s littering,” said Lt. Eric Roeske, a spokesperson for the Minnesota State Patrol.
Minnesota state statue 169.42 specifically mentions “ashes” and “cigarette filters.” Littering is a misdemeanor, and it goes on your driving record. A second offense has a minimum fine of $400.
So why doesn’t the State Patrol do anything?
“Actually we do,” Roeske said. In the year between May 2011 and April 30, 2012, the State Patrol issued 195 citations for littering and 388 warnings.
“Most of those are for cigarette butts,” he said.
Many smokers think the cigarettes are just paper – and degrade quickly. But according to the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, they have a serious environmental impact.
A single butt is tiny, and has no impact; but in the aggregate, about 1.7 billion pounds of butts are tossed on the roads, sidewalks, and beaches in the U.S. every year.
The filters don’t ever really degrade, and their chemicals are just absorbed into the soil and water. Researchers have found dangers for waterways and fish.
State Troopers have bigger safety issues than cigarette butts, but they say they do pull people over.
“It can be an indication about someone who just doesn’t care about other traffic laws,” Roeske said. “Some night shift troopers have arrested drunk drivers on littering stops when they see those cigarette butts fly out the window.”