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Do Huge Fines Actually Reduce Cigarette Butt Litter?

Reducing the most prevalent form of litter in the world requires more than just hard-to-enforce laws.

Do Huge Fines Actually Reduce Cigarette Butt Litter?
[Top Photo: pbk-pg via Shutterstock]

Being near the Great Lakes, the state of Illinois has long had pretty good anti-littering laws with one glaring exception. Until a law passed in 2013, cigarette butts were not considered litter.

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Cigarette litter–which is the most prevalent form of litter globally and in the U.S.– is a huge problem. Aside from the fact that no one likes littered streets and beaches, filters and tips cause issues because the plastics don’t easily degrade, contain toxic chemicals that end up in waterways, and can be mistaken for food by wildlife.

In 2014, strict, controversial new anti-littering laws went into effect in the state, punishable by a fine that starts at $1,500 and a misdemeanor for a first offense, and ends (on the third violation) with a whopping $25,000 fine and a felony. So what has the law done to actually reduce the problem of cigarette pollution?

Flickr user waferboard

The answer is probably not much. According to a Fox News affiliate, Illinois state police wrote “very few” citations statewide in the law’s first three months in 2014 because they can’t ticket someone unless they see them toss a butt. Two counties in Illinois, the station reports, issued no citations at all in the first three months. Like most litter laws, the best hope is that the law is an effective deterrent on its own. (High fines, however, can also be a deterrent to cops, who feel bad issuing high-cost tickets for what they view as a small offense.)

Another measure of success is whether litter has actually decreased. It may be too soon for hard data, but the Alliance for Great Lakes, a group that does beach cleanups on the shores of Lake Michigan, says it hasn’t seen a downward trend in cigarette butt litter its volunteers collect since the Illinois took effect. While it does not have numbers, engagement director Jennifer Caddick says the big picture is that cigarette-related litter is still the top item overall that volunteers pick up at beaches (even those that have smoking bans).

Flickr user Toxicbutts

Enforcement is only one of several ways to reduce cigarette litter, according to the national group Keep America Beautiful, especially since litter laws are rarely enforced. “Our point of view is that enforcement is certainly key,” says Mike Rosen, a spokesman with the group. “But it’s about behavior change–that’s what we are really ultimately in the business of.”

Rosen says one way to increase enforcement is to empower citizens. The city of Lafayette, Louisiana, for example, recently set up a consumer hotline. A person can call with the license plate number if he or she witnesses littering–the license plate holder gets a warning on the first offense and a ticket on the second. More importantly, the group says education and awareness raising is crucial as is installing ash receptacles at “transition points” where smokers hang out, like bus stops and entrances to buildings, and distributing free pocket or portable ashtrays. Its grants, which help communities do all of the above, have been consistently successful at reducing litter by 50% in places where they’ve been implemented.

About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.

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