The first thing I do when I’ve made my way to one of Tahoe’s beaches is pick up every piece of trash I can find: cigarette butts, aluminum can pop tabs, pieces of broken glass as well as bottles, cans, plastic bags and wrappers. It doesn’t take long, just a few minutes, but it helps me to relax knowing that I have done a very small thing in helping to keep Lake Tahoe clean and pristine.
Fortunately it is not just me picking up random pieces of trash—for example, the League to Save Lake Tahoe and scores of volunteers are instrumental in picking up tons of trash: 2.23 tons, to be exact and that is just for 2015.
About 600 people this year were inspired to help the League in picking up trash with 300 participating for the post-4th of July pick up, covering 4½ miles of shoreline in one day.
The number one littered item around the lake and indeed the world, is cigarette butts. It is such a small thing—the excuses for throwing it on the ground are many but in the end, anything we tell ourselves is just rationalizing away bad behavior.
While a cigarette butt is small, it is not biodegradable, it is photo degradable and there is a difference. Organic items are biodegradable, such as paper, coffee filters and grounds or banana peels.
Photo degradation means that items break down in sunlight, but they simple break into smaller pieces, which means they never fully leave the environment. Plastics and the chemicals they are made of are not recognized as food by the bacteria that aid in decomposition.
A cigarette butt is made up of 12,000 tiny fibers. During photo degradation, the butt eventually dissolves into these particles, many of which make their way into waterways where they may be ingested by aquatic creatures, then possibly by humans who ultimately eat the aquatic creatures, or they settle in the lake bed, leaching out toxins.
Consider this—it is also against the law to toss that cigarette butt onto the ground and is punishable by up to a $500 fine. Here is an idea—did you know that anyone observing another person tossing trash onto the ground can make a citizen’s citation? Be prepared to go to court and testify but think of the time spent as doing something good for the Earth.
The League to Save Lake Tahoe formulates counts of the trash by dumping it onto a tarp and cigarette butts are the “winner” with 12,900 collected so far this year. The next-largest most discarded item is single-use plastics, also non-biodegradable.
I was waiting at a stop light in Reno one day when a lit cigarette butt sailed out of the window of the car in front of me. My impulse was to get out of my car, pick up the butt and toss it back in the window. That would not have been wise, or effective.
I considered taking down the plate number and making a citizen’s arrest. Probably the best thing to have done would be this: Get out of my car, pick up the cigarette butt and kindly tell the car’s occupants that I was going to dispose of this trash for them and to please consider not throwing any more butts out the window. As is the way of the world, I ultimately did nothing.
There are things we can do: We can pick up trash when we go out, we can limit our use of single-use plastics such as soda and water bottles and get involved in the clean-up days sponsored by the League to Save Lake Tahoe. See the organization’s website keeptahoeblue.org for a wealth of information about this and other programs.
The League has reusable water bottles for sale in their office and on their website. Once you get in the habit, it’s easy to always have a water bottle or travel cup with you which can even be used at fast-food restaurants.
Take it a step farther and recycle the cigarette butts you collect. Check out terracycle.com to find out how. According to their website, nearly 40 million butts have been collected so far which are recycled into a variety of industrial products, including plastic pallets.
What I do with cigarette butts I happen to find on the ground is roll them into my socks. They then get added to my collection at home which I will be sending off for recycle as soon as I get a full can. You can do it, too and tell yourself: “Saving the world, one butt at a time.”