The Grand Canyon Visitors Who Put the Butt in Butthead

One may extrapolate that there are approximately 56,940 butts deposited on this one trail each year.

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.


Showing 10 comments
  • J.Bella

    Keep up the great work, Marjorie. And thanks, for caring about this place which many disregard. You rock!

  • kb

    Too many humans are entitled, lazy, selfish, disrespectful and clueless. If litter laws were or could be enforced it would be a huge deterrent to the loser litterer. In CA it’s a $1,000 fine for littering. When I see it happening whether it be a stone’s throw from the Pacific, the rim of the GC, the Costco parking lot or the classic, out the car window all I can dream of is their elimination from this planet. But instead of drowning them in the ocean, pushing them over the rim, flattening them with my shopping cart or picking up the glowing butt and throwing it back into their car I just try to kindly ask them to please not litter. Anyway, thank you for your efforts and communication, “Slim”.

  • Jill

    I certainly appreciate your diligence in your war against cigarette butts in our National Parks. I personally cannot stand seeing them everywhere but your statement. “Worldwide, 120 billion butts are discarded every year, and 99 percent have plastic filters.” is actually wrong. 99 percent of cigarette butts contain paper and filter, not plastic. Some do contain plastic but probably less than 1 percent.

    • Pavel

      Well put Jill. I don’t and never have smoked but the sanctimony against smokers seems to harm more brains than second hand smoke does lungs. The zealousness and ridiculous exaggerations possibly do more harm to thought out discourse and progress because it’s such over the top hyperbole.

      I used to work in the plastics industry. If the vanguard for a better world (better for whom, seems never to be pondered) had any idea of how their passion for Nalgene bottles to tote their water and their consumption of water from HDPE or LDPE plastic water bottles creates pollution problems and harms animals – well the lowly paper cigaret butt seems to be the butt of an unfair singling out.

      As with most things, outdoor enthusiasts, nature lovers and “Rad Dudes” should first look to their impact first before forming a preachy lynch mob.

      Of course without the exaggerations and simplification of a great problem – that of over populations and it’s impact on, well, lets face it not on the planet, as the planet doesn’t care, but on our long term welfare, this is an important thing to try to change. I applaud the authors general stance and especially her willingness to stoop over and actively participate. I don’t see too many of our species doing something like picking up a butt, a water bottle, or fast food waste.

      Perhaps it’s my imagination but once in a while while I too stoop to pick up something and throw it where it should have been put in the first place, I seem to get odd looks and once in a while smirks. Mind you I don’t do that often. Not often enough for sure as it’s not a policy of mine, just the occasional flare up of anger at how gross people can be.

      After reading this, I’ll try to be more diligent. Over the top or not, the idea is good.

      Lastly, why was the usual approach not given equal time in this article. When hikers complain that of unruly Mountain bikers out on the trail doing damage and riding dangerously, there is always the point made how it’s the bad apples only and to not paint all cyclists with the same brush. That’s a good point, though I’me met my share of cycling yahoos, we need to not freak out. Odd that equal measure is conspicuously absent. This Authors standards are normally much higher. Yes that kind of consistency is important to credibility. Don’t vilify the whole group. It may come around one day. Given enough time it always does, rooted in once good intentions.

  • Tristan

    Such a poignant piece, well put.

  • Gene Kriegsmann

    I completely sympathize with your plight, but I think your math is anything but accurate. Applying the number of butts found along a travel used by what are essentially non-hikers to trails requiring a good deal more commitment is simply as asinine ad claiming that second hand smoke kills millions. It simply isn’t true. The disgusting lack of care for what they leave behind is a characteristic of people who limit themselves to short, easy walks to viewpoints, not longer trails. Your 24 butts a day is applicable solely to the place you find them, and not 365 days a year, only those halcyon days of spring, summer, and fall when the non-initiated come to the park.
    Unquestionably, the behavior of dropping or flicking cigarette butts is disgusting, but it is limited to a few and to a narrow arena. I used to find small piles of empty soda cans at or near the top of Mt Si, a modest peak outside of Seattle used by an incredible number of hikers because of its easy access and superb views at the top. I never found such deposits on any other hike or climb simply because the idiots who chose to do Si did so because it was convenient and easily accessible. The same can be said for the little two mile section of the Rim trail.
    Instead of posting your complaints on a site on which you are merely preaching to the choir, you should attempt to reach the offenders. We who read this site very likely don’t smoke, wouldn’t dream of littering, nor would we likely even go to a place as heavily populated with people who do smoke and who do litter.

  • Hansel

    This piece, unfortunately, only preaches to the choir. I wish there were some sort of super hero that waited in the shadows for people to litter and then made them pay. Or if you were caught littering you had to wear some sort of dunce cap around. Or you had to clean up others trash for the rest of your life. However americans wouldn’t be able to handle the “shaming” There is absolutely nothing i detest more than driving down the street and seeing litter. It angers me to the core how others are so lazy, entitled, and/or ignorant that they think others will pick up their trash.

  • Michelle DeMarco

    Wow that is shocking. It is sad that people are in this incredible environment of beauty and nature and yet bring something so bad for themselves and the environment into the space. Very sad, hopefully that will change. Thank you for your contribution in making it better!

  • gnarlydog

    Hardly anybody smokes anymore in Australia.
    The aggressive government advertising campaign was clever enough to change the social perspective and change the tide: only the most callous and uneducated person is still seen lighting up a fag (yes, that’s what they call them in OZ)
    Once became social not acceptable to smoke anymore the reduction in cigarette buts followed, of course.

  • Thomas Gorton

    Not only does it disgust me totally but it pisses me off immensely….the fact that so many cigarette smokers think that the world is their personal friggin’ ashtray regardless of where they are. It is blatant ignorance and disregard for the environment. Jerks personified. I was on the south rim of the Grand Canyon last year and saw butts everywhere I walked. One was jambed into the side of a rock as if meant to be found. If people want to foul their lungs and greatly increase their chances of lung cancer, be my guest. But our world is not your personal ashtray, pigs! Shove your used up cancer sticks up your….well, you know what I mean.

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