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Cigarette butts flicked out of car windows are ruining NJ’s waterways

Cigarette butts. (Thinkstock)
Cigarette butts. (Thinkstock)

It happens every day on New Jersey roads: Used cigarette butts are tossed out car windows. Aside from the obvious risk of forest fires, discarded butts are taking a toll on our waterways and marine life.

“Worldwide, there’s about 4 trillion butts thrown out every single year, so it really adds up,” said Karen Walzer, public outreach coordinator for Barnegat Bay Partnership, the national estuary program for Barnegat Bay.

When it rains in New Jersey, discarded butts are carried into storm drains and straight into local rivers or streams, which eventually empty into Barnegat Bay, according to Walzer.

“The thing about cigarette butts is that a lot of folks think that they’re biodegradable, but actually they’re not. There’s plastic in the filter and it can take up to 10 years for that to decompose. So that creates a serious problem when it gets into the waterways. There are also chemicals in the cigarette butts that are toxic to marine life,” Walzer said.

Fish in particular can ingest the discarded cigarette butts, which contain nicotine, arsenic and lead. Walzer pointed out nicotine is actually a pesticide.

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“It’s actually an easy fix. People just have to remember that they’re not biodegradable and they should take the time to dispose of them properly,” said Walzer.

Barnegat Bay Partnership is trying to educate smokers on the seriousness of the cigarette butt litter problem using data from the Keep America Beautiful organization and by handing out bumper stickers.

“They did a study and found that, besides the fact that people wrongly assume they’re biodegradable, another huge problem is that there aren’t enough places for them to dispose of their butts,” Walzer said.

For newer model vehicles that don’t have ashtrays, Walzer suggested smokers us a portable cigarette butt holder available on the market or placing something as simple as an empty bottle or can in the car to dispose of butts.

“They’re are definitely little steps that people can take that would make a huge difference for this kind of litter,” Walzer said. “We’re just hoping that smokers take the time to properly dispose of their butts,” she added.

“If people care about having clean water and care about the wildlife in our streams and bays and oceans, they should be a little more cautious about disposing of their butts and doing it the correct way,” Walzer said.

Barnegat Bay Partnership is part of a new national initiative with the Environmental Protection Agency called “Trash-free Waters” and Walzer pointed out that interestingly, cigarette butts is one of the five plastic source pollution items being focused on along with plastic bags, plastic bottles, plastic takeout food containers, and microbeads that used to be in cosmetics.

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