commentary (2007-12)

Cigarette butts, and the immunity of those distribute them

The Littering Exemption

by Jack Neely

Littering is punishable by a fine of $1,000. It's posted on signs. People do sometimes get cited for it. But there's one big exemption society makes, as if by common assent. There's one particular demographic group that has immunity.

By custom and practice, smokers are allowed to litter.

The reason why they're allowed to litter is less clear than the pure fact that they are. It's not because cigarette butts are biodegradable. If they have a filter, they're not. Most filters are made from plastic fibers. No smoker will be on the earth's surface as long as each of his cigarettes' discarded filters.

That's assuming they get into landfills. This column is about the ones that don't. There are, as I write this, thousands of visible cigarette butts within a half-mile of where I'm sitting. They're debris in the gutters and on the sidewalks, in recessed doorways, in stairwells, in playground gravel. They're flotsam in the mouth of First Creek. Littering would seem to be a right unique to smokers. Some non-smokers litter, certainly. They do it when no one's looking. And then mostly when they're ignorant, or drunk. Smokers, by contrast, litter in public, almost proudly.

They may not think at all when they do it, perhaps a dozen or more times in a single day. But if they do, it must be something along the lines of,

Someone else will take care of this . In any case, I can't be troubled with it.

In fact, someone does take care of it. The city has to hire somebody to come around and pick up the thousand or more cigarette butts that litter downtown streets. Sometimes you see them.

Friends who ride motorcycles complain that cigarette butts, which tend to accumulate in intersections, can cause skids and accidents. One tells me he's been burned by thrown cigarette butts that have hit him in the throat.

Motorcyclists aren't the only ones who get to encounter burning cigarette butts in an intimate way. About a year ago, walking down Gay Street near the big bank buildings, a nicely dressed, professional-looking man of middle age turned and flipped a burning cigarette butt right into my solar plexus.

If I'd been wearing my asbestos sweater that day, it wouldn't have been that much of a problem. But as it was, I brushed the burning cinders out of the wool, as the smoker assured me that he was really sorry. He just wanted to throw the cigarette butt on the sidewalk, and I'd gotten in the way.

Sometimes the consequences can be dramatic. At lunchtime one sunny Wednesday a couple of weeks ago, some architects and developers working on the huge Holston Building project were walking down Clinch Avenue by the history center across from Krutch Park, and happened to notice, right on the sidewalk, a half-bushel of leaves that were on fire. The area's a popular place to stash cigarette butts, and besides the burning leaves, that was mostly what you could see there. The architects stomped it out, and it didn't cause any major damage. But you could smell it hours later.

Later that evening, there was a private party at the Tennessee Theatre, which somehow, for purposes unclear to the general public, persuaded its members to wear pirate costumes.

I don't know what was going on inside. I do know that you can't smoke in the Tennessee. So for some time, there was a rather large assembly of pirates outside, under the marquee, smoking--and, as if it were a perfectly normal and appropriate thing to do, throwing cigarette butts into the street. One after another after another. It was routine, a ritual accepted within their pirate sect. The choreography was so interesting it halted me on the sidewalk on the opposite side, and I watched for a while.

They threw their cigarette butts exactly as they would if they were feeding pigeons. Each had a variation on the same basic style. Some did it with a distinctive flourish. Some did it with the solemn, thoughtful expressions you see on the faces of people recycling newspapers or milk jugs. It was as if each was doing his or her part to provide a layer of cigarette butts on the street for these disadvantaged downtown people who weren't able to do it for themselves.

I don't know whether any of them noticed the faint odor of woodsmoke, from the sidewalk fire started a couple of hours earlier by one of their unwitting butt brothers hardly half a block away.

Once a few years ago, I saw a city employee on Market Street near Krutch Park. He was fussing with a chainsaw engine, and poured some of the contents of its tank into the gutter. I usually leave people alone, but I couldn't help asking. "Are you pouring gasoline into the street?"

"I was just seein' if it was a mix," he answered, as if that made pouring gasoline into the street perfectly understandable. He wanted me to know that he was an honorable man, and that he had good reason to pour gasoline onto the street on a Tuesday morning.

For a wicked moment, I thought of an old cartoon feature in MAD Magazine called "Scenes We'd Like to See." And I wondered, where are the flying cigarette butts when you need them. That would have made the news.