YRE Competition 2020
Cigarette butts are the most common type of garbage in cities and nature. Throwing them to the ground is considered to be a common and safe way to dispose of this waste. The team of pupils from Cirkevná základná škola Narnia hit the streets of Bratislava and explored how to minimize the most overlooked disposable plastic.
The students asked people in Bratislava whether they were bothered by cigarette butts on the ground. Many see cigarette butts as a "normal" part of the street. Many consider them to be an "aesthetic problem". They believe that discarded cigarette butts will decompose over time and disappear.
Member of the European (MEP) Martin Hojsík told the students that there was more to this:
"I think people notice the problem of streets littered with cigarette butts, but they overlook the fact that, like straws or shopping bags, cigarette butts are a disposable plastic."
Hojsík considers raising awareness of this problem to be a great first step to changing the situation.
A “small” problem
The problem has two levels. Cigarette butts, littering the streets and nature, are made of plastic. Also, when burned they absorb substances from tobacco and become toxic so, when they are thrown away, they contain several harmful substances. At best they end up in municipal waste, at worst they are dumped on the ground. They are the most overlooked disposable plastic in the ecosystem. The chemicals are released into soil when they come into contact with water. The students collected cigarette butts from 1 m² and soaked them in water. The water changed color and became a dark brown, smelly leachate.
According to research, when three butts are added into a one litre aquarium with a fish, the fish dies within 24 hours. Watering seeds of shamrocks with this water would result in 30% less of them sprouting than the same sample watered with normal water. MEP Hojsík gave this answer:
“The filters in the butts are made of cellulose acetate, which is actually plastic. When the cigarette is smoked, they absorb substances in the tobacco, and therefore this plastic contains nicotine, heavy metals and other chemicals. So, it´s also about serious pollution.”
Only 3.5% cigarettes have filters which decompose in nature, due to costs. While plastic bottles and bags are taxed and straws are being replaced, no one notices butts.
It’s not enough to protect non-smokers
Students noticed during their research that butts are mainly found near bus stops. Their first step was to create a campaign to increase awareness of this problem. They discovered that there is one trash can at their bus stop near the school, but there is no ash tray. Smoking near bus stops is forbidden. This is highlighted with pictograms, signs, and bus-stop area is monitored by camera. Smokers go to smoke behind bus stops, out of the camera’s view. When they finish smoking they throw their butt on the ground.
According to the town council of Bratislava, dropping cigarettes butts on the ground is a violation and fines can be as high as 33€. In 2019 city police issued fines for 1295 offenses of cleanliness laws in public locations. This number includes cigarettes and other forms of pollution.
Students contacted the city with a proposal that bus stops should have a special bin for cigarettes 5 m away. The distance would be marked by footsteps on the ground and be marked for smokers. Similar social experiments have been done before and were effective. This was a children´s initiative in Bratislava, but the city didn’t support it, so they created a mini campaign.
They marked one square meter and cleaned it. There were 131 cigarette butts. Over a month 184 cigarette butts were collected over repeated cleaning dates (an experiment in Cambridge collected 128 butts in 1 m²). At the bus stop they marked cigarette butts in the 1 m² with „canapes“ flags. When people asked what it was about, the cigarettes became very evident.
Problem with no solution?
The students did not give up and informed the Magistrate about the results of their experiment of collecting cigarette butts at the bus stop. They added facts about the collection of butts at other bus stops. For example, near Aupark there were 10-times more cigarette butts than at the experimental bus stop. They inquired about how the bus stops were cleaned. Mr. Peter Bubla from the mayor’s office said, that the cigarette butts are disposed of by Dopravný podnik Bratislava (public transit) along with the communal waste collected at the bus stops. According to him, it is not possible to place waste bins with ashtrays at bus stops, because it is prohibited by law to smoke there. The most frequented bus stops are cleaned several times per day.
The problem seemed too complicated, so the students asked the MEP if he was aware of possible solutions. He used the example of Japan, where there is an absolute ban of throwing cigarette butts on the ground. There are separate zones reserved for smoking and often there are campaigns, motivating people to dispose of their butts in designated places. Smokers in Japan use private ashtrays in which they collect the cigarette butts and then empty them in trash cans. This doesn’t address the problem of decomposition and recycling.
Better legislation could help
The key to solve the problem is to change legislation. Individuals do not have enough power or the right tools, like the European Parliament has.
Cigarette butts can be defined as the most overlooked single-use plastic in the world. This fact inspires the students to go on with the project. Even though, according to the city council, marking smoking areas at bus stops is not realistic, the students believe that once they meet with the mayor, they will find a solution.
Authors: Michaela Hermanová, Leo Klein, Emil Slimák, Patrik Poltársky