Get your butts off the beach

Once again, cigarette butts have topped the list of the most common litter items found on Canadian shorelines.

A pile of discarded cigarette butts found during a 2018 Canadian Shoreline Cleanup.
Cigarette butts found during a 2018 Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup. © Pete Ewins

According to the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup 2018 report, volunteers around the country picked up 560,432 butts in the program’s 25th year. In urban areas such as Vancouver and Victoria, cigarettes can make up over 50 per cent of the litter found on shorelines. The Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup is presented by Loblaw Companies Limited and Coca-Cola Ltd.

The 12 most common items (ranked according to numbers) found along shorelines

Here’s how these beach butts and microplastics are hurting wildlife:

Cigarette butts are doing more than wrecking our day at the beach. Yes, no one likes to find them as they comb their hands through the sand during a day at the beach, but it seems that somewhere along the line, we’ve forgotten that cigarettes are trash. And while they may seem harmless because they’re small and the filters look like cotton, they’re actually made of a fibrous plastic that’s laced with chemicals like nicotine, formaldehyde, cadmium and tar (among many, many others). These chemicals can leach out into our waterways, and since the filters are not biodegradable, they can cause all sorts of problems.

Birds and fish can swallow cigarette butts whole. And if they remain in the water, they’ll eventually break down into microplastics, which can be consumed by smaller organisms and even make it back into drinking water. They cause problems out of the water too. We share our shorelines with many wildlife species, including endangered species like the piping plover, and as they continue to face increasing pressures from habitat loss and disturbance, they need us to help keep their habitats litter-free.

Piping Plover on the beach (c) bookguy/istock photo

Here’s what you can do to stop plastic pollution:

Clearly cigarette butts and other plastic waste belong in the trash. There are a few things you can do to keep our shorelines clean. If your city has them, use the special receptacles designed for butt disposal. Otherwise, make sure they’re completely extinguished and cooled, and place them in the regular trash. Finally, encourage those around you to do the same.

And until we kick this dirty habit, you can help by participating in (or leading) a Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup event near you. It’s one of the largest direct-action conservation programs in the country and it’s allowed Canadians to make some real changes in their communities. In the 25 years that the program has been running more than 850,000 volunteers have picked up almost 1.8 million kilograms of litter along nearly 40,000 kilometres of shoreline—that’s the same distance you’d travel if you circled every Great Lake (and its islands) more than twice!

And finally, if we can go the distance to pick up trash, let’s set our sights higher—let’s keep it off our shores to begin with.