Every day I walk the scenic Rim Trail at Grand Canyon. Everyday I pick up trash. Every day I pick up at least two dozen cigarette butts. Every. Single. Day. It is the invasion of the butt flickers.
There are the casual flickers who check surreptitiously for surveillance, and then flick straight down the leg, hoping for camouflage. There are the insouciant flickers who hold the butt high and flick with pride and arrogance, perchance hoping for a distance record. Alas, occasionally a cigarette butt flies over the edge, lost to all but the hapless animal that ingests it. Not that the insouciant humans notice or care.
There are the allegedly socially responsible flickers who flick and stomp. They, at least, recognize that they are casually tossing aside a live ember that might possibly join forces with a flammable object and get overly enthusiastic. And there are the “considerate” flickers, who don’t actually flick. Instead, they tuck the butt tenderly into a crevice or behind a rock where it might not be noticed by any but the zealous butt collector.
If I pick up an average of 24 butts per day in a two-mile stretch and the rim trail is 13 miles long, one may extrapolate that there are approximately 56,940 butts deposited on this one trail each year. Grand Canyon has 300 miles of trails, hence 1,314,000 butts a year — and you told your high school math teacher you would never need those skills. There are fewer butts on backcountry trails, but this is more than made up for by the ankle-deep drifts at bus stops. Nicotine addicts on the bus have been without their fix for four hours, and they erupt off the vehicle, ciggie in hand, frantically flicking at a lighter.
In 2015, about 15 percent of Americans smoked. About 1 billion people smoke worldwide, and 65 percent of smokers flick their butts with a remarkable lack of precision. By count, almost 35 percent of litter in outdoor recreation areas is butts. Often the flick occurs within 10 feet of an outdoor ashtray.
Worldwide, 120 billion butts are discarded every year, and 99 percent have plastic filters. Cigarette butts are said to take between 18 months to 10 years to decompose. “Decompose” is misleading, because the plastic in the filter breaks down into smaller parts, but it, like death and taxes, will be with us always.
Filters contain heavy metals such as cadmium, arsenic and lead, as well as nicotine. Nicotine, one may recall, is sold as an insecticide. One cigarette butt can kill fish if put into water, or harm a human baby, if put into the baby, usually by the baby.
Birds, fish, pets, wild animals and human infants are indiscriminate eaters. Which is to say, if something is on the ground, they will eat it. Wildlife biologists have told me that butts may be mistaken for bone, something that animals, lacking calcium supplements, are inclined to eat so as to ingest the calcium. After all, they never read the warning labels on the cigarette packages.
An acquaintance once informed me that he, for one, does not pick up butts. “I want the smokers to be ashamed of themselves.” This is, not to put too fine a point on it, codswallop. If smokers were capable of being ashamed of themselves, they would not flick.
Most smokers seem to fondly assume, if they assume anything at all, that the butts will magically vanish like the snows of yesteryear.
I was once industriously picking up flicked butts when a barefoot boy-child approached me. Fixing me with his puppy-dog eyes, he inquired innocently if butts don’t biodegrade. I spied his responsible adult skulking within earshot. I assumed the adult feared my righteous wrath if he asked me himself and sent his child as a sacrifice.
Solemnly, I explained that filters contain plastic, which does not in fact, ever disappear, and that the filters are toxic to animals and other living things. Nor are they particularly difficult to dispose of. At which point I picked up a butt, put it in my butt bag, and emptied the contents to a trash receptacle. The boy nodded and scampered back to his father. “She says no, Dad!” So much for that covert operation.
So we soldier on, picking up after those who disdain to do so themselves, ever vigilant, following the butt flickers. We plod on while thinking dark thoughts: Emphysema. Stroke. Tooth loss. Wrinkles. Eventually we resort to poetry:
There was a young smoker named Clyde,
Who took his habit outside.
But, being a klutz,
He flicked his butts,
And a condor ate them and died.
Marjorie “Slim” Woodruff works in the Grand Canyon and most always enjoys observing tourists. This essay was produced by High Country News, where it first appeared. Photo by Mark Collins.