Program in Virginia Beach and other cities finds success in reducing cigarette butt litter

(Courtesy of askhrgreen.org)
(Courtesy of askhrgreen.org)

A cigarette litter prevention program that was tested in Virginia Beach and other area cities showed that in some cases, all smokers need to keep their butts off the ground are a place to put them and a few reminders.

At the Lake Lawson/Lake Smith Natural Area in Virginia Beach, the Parks & Recreation Department found a 69 percent decrease in cigarette litter following a campaign that used signs, word-of-mouth and the distribution of ash trays and receptacles throughout the property. The initiative was funded by a $12,500 regional Keep America Beautiful grant and a $5,000 askHRgreen grant, according to Amy Woodson, a parks and recreation supervisor and the city’s lead on the project.

In addition to the Virginia Beach site, that $17,500 grant money funded similar outreach efforts at locations in six other localities, including the nTelos Wireless Pavilion in Portsmouth, the civic plaza and light rail station at Norfolk City Hall, downtown Suffolk and Buckroe Beach in Hampton.

In Virginia Beach, the effort at Lake Lawson/Lake Smith included the installation of five post-mounted butt receptacles, two banners and smaller signs. Workers handed out ashtrays that fit in automobile and boat cup-holders, and others that smokers could put in their pockets.

The educational campaign was not about telling people not to smoke, Woodson said. Rather, it was about how and why to dispose of butts.

Although small, cigarette butts cause problems because they are the most littered item anywhere, according to Keep America Beautiful, a nonprofit that seeks to end littering, increase recycling and beautify communities. The filters are mostly made of a form of plastic that does not degrade quickly; they are harmful to animals and marine life when mistaken for food; they contribute to blight and require costly cleanup in front of businesses; and along with other tobacco products, they make up 32 percent of litter at storm drains, according to the organization.

To measure the effectiveness of the litter prevention program, staff allowed cigarette butts to accumulate in certain areas of the Lake Lawson/Lake Smith Natural Area for a couple of weeks.

“Which goes against the very grain of what we do,” Woodson said.

They picked up all the butts and counted them for a baseline. Then they launched the educational campaign, added the receptacles and handed out the ashtrays. Staff let an even longer period go by without picking up butts, until a second scan was done, at which time they collected and counted again.

The difference was stark.

“We were very excited over the results,” Woodson said.

The final tally: 528 butts before, 162 butts after, according to numbers from the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission.

Other sites saw even bigger drops than in Virginia Beach. Portsmouth and Suffolk saw decreases in cigarette litter of 95 percent and 93 percent, respectively. As a region, the seven locations saw a combined 74 percent reduction.

Another scan will be done next year to measure what kind of lasting impact this year’s effort has on how visitors to the natural area discard their butts, Woodson said.

Will the program grow? As with anything, expanding the initiative is a question of funding.

“This particular experience showed us that the education works,” Woodson said. “It worked for that period of time. Will it be sustainable? I certainly hope so.”

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