Cambridge Eyesores: It's Litter, No Ifs, Ands, or Butts

Cambridge Eyesores: It's Litter, No Ifs, Ands, or Butts

By Karen Klinger

On a recent warm evening in Cambridge’s Winthrop Park, two smartly-dressed women sat on a bench chatting and smoking cigarettes. After a while, they stubbed out the cigarettes on the cobblestones in front of them and strolled toward the nearby Grendel’s Den restaurant, leaving the butts for someone else to clean up.

In this case, the “someone else” was the Cambridge Department of Public Works, and by extension, the city’s taxpayers. The women simply added to scores of butts scattered around the park on J.F.K. Street that day.

It was a scene that is repeated all day, every day in Cambridge and cities throughout the country and indeed, the world. A recent study led by Thomas Novotny, a professor of global health at San Diego State University, says an estimated 1.69 billion pounds (845,000 tons) of butts wind up as litter worldwide each year.

In the United States, research indicates that cigarette butts constitute up to a third of all litter (measured by number of items, not volume). The environmental campaign “Think Blue Massachusetts” (, led by the Hingham-based Massachusetts Bay Estuary Association, says 176 million pounds of butts are discarded in this country annually, “enough to fill the seats at Fenway Park 32 times.”

The issue of cigarette butts as litter most often comes up in the context of the harm posed to beaches and other coastal areas, or to forests and conservation land where they can pose a fire hazard. But recently, municipalities increasingly have shown they are fed up with the problem.

In Massachusetts, cities including Braintree, Holliston, Sharon and Tynsborough have enacted smoking bans at local beaches, following a trend in at least 15 other states, plus Puerto Rico. A few cities also prohibit smoking in publicly-owned outdoor areas such as parks, something Cambridge officials have discussed, but done nothing more.

Last spring, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom (also a gubernatorial candidate) proposed adding a 33-cent local tax to the cost of a pack of cigarettes to compensate for the estimated nearly $11 million the city spends annually on removing discarded cigarette butts from parks, sidewalks, gutters and drainpipes.

Newsom said a “litter audit” found that cigarette detritus accounted for one-quarter of all trash collected each year in the city’s public spaces.

In Cambridge, Lisa Peterson, the city’s public works commissioner, said she had no similar data to estimate just what share of the total trash collection cigarette butts constitute, nor how much it costs each year to clean them up.

But she acknowledged that cigarette-related litter is a “significant problem.” She said her department copes by using vacuum hoses, among other techniques, to remove butts from areas such as Winthrop Park and tries to encourage proper disposal of cigarette trash through public awareness campaigns, including reaching out to businesses such as bars and restaurants.

Among the many volunteers who took part last spring in the first “Clean Cambridge Day," the magnitude of the problem of casually-discarded cigarette butts became acutely apparent. While some groups worked to clean the Central Square area, another pitched in to tackle parts of Porter Square.

For the latter group, which included people from the Porter Square Neighbors Association (PSNA), Lesley University and the Ward 10 Democratic Committee, the most time-consuming task involved picking up, one by one, the cigarette butts stuck in the sidewalk tree grates.

At one point the volunteers (including this writer) found themselves on their hands and knees painstakingly picking the butts out of a grate in front of the Newtowne Grille at 1945 Massachusetts Ave., where a sand-filled container for cigarette disposal stood just a few feet away.

The fact that smokers—whether passersby or restaurant patrons—could not be bothered to use the container was infuriating to some and disheartening to others. Susan Hunziker, a PSNA board member who organized the cleanup, said with a sigh, “Well, it is discouraging.”

One problem may be that people who would not drop so much as a candy wrapper on the ground do not think of cigarette butts as litter. Or they believe the butts are biodegradable and environmentally harmless.

But they are not. Novotny, the San Diego State researcher, and colleagues said in the study published in May in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (, that even “if properly disposed, cigarette butts are hazardous solid waste.”

Among the 600 chemicals the butts have been found to contain are arsenic, lead, the pesticide benzene and formaldehyde. In experiments cited by Novotny, standard tests for toxicity found that a single butt placed in a liter of water with minnows had enough poisons to kill half of them within 96 hours.

Nor do the butts readily break down. While the tobacco industry has experimented with cigarettes that are more environmentally friendly, “there is no evidence that the industry has developed a marketable, degradable filter,” Novotny’s group said.

All of which brings us back to those two women in Winthrop Park. What were they thinking? Would they have stubbed out their cigarettes and left the butts on their own property? If they attended a friend’s barbecue party would they scatter cigarette butts on the friend’s deck? Or in the friend’s garden?

Or would they be likely to go online to the website where they could buy popular T-shirts bearing this in-your-face message: “The World Is My Ashtray.”

(Note: This is in issue that affects all of us, daily. The writer invites your comments.)


Karen, thank you for focusing attention on this issue! I, too, know people who consider themselves to be concerned about the environment, who think nothing of throwing a cigarette butt out the window of a car or onto the ground!

There's a great show of trash art at Peabody-Essex Museum; a chef d'oeuvre in a case all by itself is the giant clamshell made of butts from Scarborough beach in RI. Not that I'd try to make a case for butts as art--I agree that they're truly revolting, and furthermore it took a shocking number of them to make the exhibit--but I thought you'd be interested in the idea. PEM also has a sweet bunny made of the fuzz from filters (even less biodegradable than the tobacco part). Thumbnail pix of the clam and other exhibits are at, though of course they have to be seen live in all their nasty glory.

not quite as gross, but no less compelling is Amanda Nelsen's show in the Drive-by-Gallery right now - an installation made entirely of junk mail. Check out her work:

Like Bottles, we need a cigarette deposit law.