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The Search for Solutions to Chicago Beaches’ Big Cigarette Butt Problem

A study identifies 72 percent of litter as smoking and food-related.

Though the number of smoking bans has increased and national statistics show some decrease in the number of smokers, a recent Loyola University study shows cigarette butts remain a big problem along the beaches of the Great Lakes, and along Lake Michigan beaches in particular.

The study compares findings from nine Chicago-area beaches, including Ohio Street plus three other Illinois locations. Smoking-related waste accounted for nearly 42 percent of all litter at Ohio Street, with food-related garbage (wrappers, bottles, bottle caps, etc.) making up 35 percent. Timothy Hoellein, lead researcher and associate professor in the Department of Biology at Loyola University in Chicago, says the bulk of the beach garbage is made up of either cigarette or food waste. The rest of the litter, he says, is comprised of little bits of glass and plastic too tiny to identify.

Volunteers from the Alliance for the Great Lakes collected more than 57,000 bits of trash—whatever they could pick up—between the months of April and October from 2003 through 2014 for the study. The group keeps records of each cleanup and researchers incorporate that data into better understanding of what’s being discarded at the beach, by whom and what policies might work best to reduce litter, Hoellein says.

Litter in marine habitats is well studied but less so in freshwater environments like the Great Lakes, says Hoellein. The study focuses on a long-running Adopt-a-Beach (AAB) program, administered by the Alliance for the Great Lakes, which has directed volunteer litter collection on Great Lakes beaches since 2003.

The study further concentrates on data specific to Lake Michigan beaches, made possible thanks to those Hoellein refers to as “citizen scientists” or the volunteers at cleanups who’ve collected the waste over the years. Researchers also used the data to determine what seasonal patterns exist and to compare that data to those of ocean beaches.

The study identifies 72 percent of the litter as smoking and food-related, and the results indicated that most waste originated from activities occurring on or near the beaches, while other potential sources were from fishing, dumping, sewage or waterway activities.

The inference, Hoellein says, could be that a local problem could have local solutions.

The fall tended to see the most litter, which Hoellein says may suggest that local municipal beach cleaning is effective at reducing litter in summer months when municipalities and others are combing the beaches with tractors on a daily basis to keep them clean. After Labor Day, those efforts stop, and the result is likely more litter for volunteers to pick up.

Cleanups at ocean beaches are more likely to encounter things from the fishing industry, like nets, traps, ropes and fishing gear that’s lost or washed away.

“We don’t find as much of that in the Great Lakes beaches. Which is good,” Hoellein says.

Trying to determine where waste is coming from on ocean beaches and trying to regulate it is much more difficult, he says. When looking at the Great Lakes, there’s more of an opportunity for successful regulation.

“We think a lot of the sources are local, which is unfortunate because it means we’re not collectively, as a culture, doing a great job of being responsible with our garbage, but it’s good in the sense that it means if there’s local problems, there could be local solutions possibly.”

Hoellein says researchers are just at the initial stages of establishing out what’s out there and various methods for determining the composition of litter and the potential sources. He adds, it does point toward potential solutions.

With cigarette butts and food waste, researchers can identify the source and know where it comes from and regulate as they see fit.

“Because much of the material on our beaches is cigarette butts and food containers, that presents, I think, some concrete directions on where to look for prevention.”

Hoellein says future studies may include looking at beach litter trends over years. Although cigarette butts are the most prevalent litter on the beaches, there has been some decline in the number of cigarette butts collected. On Lake Michigan beaches, he says, butts can make up as much as 50 to 60 percent of the items collected down to 20 or 30 percent.

The reason for the decline is not clear and is not happening on all beaches, he says. It could be local smoking ordinances and bans, or even overall national decline in smoking in general. According to the Center for Disease Control, smoking has declined from nearly 21 of every 100 adults (20.9 percent) in 2005 to about 15 of every 100 adults (15.1 percent) in 2015. Still, an estimated 36.5 million adults in the U.S. smoke cigarettes.

With those numbers, it’s no wonder cities like Chicago and Evanston, Ill., have ordinances prohibiting smoking on beaches. Of course, not all cities surrounding the lake, prohibit smoking. Gary, Ind., for example, has no such ordinance.

“We’re hoping to look at the data next to see before and after in comparing the different cities to see if we can infer something about the effectiveness of those," Hoellein says. "So we will see. I don’t know yet.”

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