If there’s one thing that the upcoming global observance of World Oceans Day on June 8 should make us think about, it’s the profound impact that our individual behavior can have on the marine environment.
Take cigarette smoking, for example. The fact that it has long been known to be a health hazard, not only to people who engage in it but to those exposed to the toxic by-products of tobacco smoke, has caused many locales to ban smoking inside public buildings and offices. But sending so many smokers outdoors to satisfy their cravings has added substantially to the number of cigarette butts being tossed on the ground on a daily basis (estimated at 15 billion worldwide). And this, in turn, is posing a growing threat to the creatures that inhabit our oceans.
The next time you’re out walking on a city street, look around at all the cigarette butts that have been carelessly tossed in the gutters and on the sidewalk. Such litter is more than just an unsightly nuisance, since most of it will more than likely end up in waterways that empty into the open sea, where research has determined that each butt discarded in this manner has the capacity to pollute two gallons of water and be fatal to any fish that happen to eat it. In fact, a 2009 study by Professor Richard Gersberg of San Diego State University found that the toxic chemicals released by just one butt from a filter cigarette have the ability to kill half the fish exposed to them in a one-liter container of water. Cigarette litter is also considered to be one of the leading contributors to the increased plastering of the ocean surface with plastic, since cigarette butts are made of cellulose acetate, a type of plastic that is not biodegradable and never fully decomposes.
But now, a simple but rather ingenuous method of at least partially curtailing this insidious menace to marine life has been introduced by a friend of mine and fellow Loyola Marymount alumnus, ocean advocate Mark Armen. Mark’s “BaitTank”—so named because a cigarette remnant actually serves as a kind of toxic bait for fish — is a stainless-steel butt receptacle designed to “attract and educate” smokers at beach and docksides locations who would ordinarily just toss away their stubs without giving it a thought. It thus doubles as what Mark terms a “platform for ecological messaging” – specifically, a message on the side urging people to “Save some fish. Feed me butts” through three gill-type slots. Topped by an attention-getting recycled surfboard fin, the device can hold up to 5,000 butts without needing to be emptied, and also features a “fish saved meter” that promotes awareness of the positive results of using it.
According to Mark, “Research indicates 38 percent of cigarette litter occurs because there is no nearby receptacle and the remaining 62 percent because the person has no awareness or motivation.” And results so far indicate that the BaitTank has been quite effective in changing the behavior of both groups, with a nearly 60 percent reduction in cigarette butt litter in waterfront areas of Santa Cruz where the receptacles have been installed being reported by Save Our Shores, an area environmental organization.
True, Mark’s invention may currently solve only a small part of this huge problem – but given how easily it can be utilized, it might well have a much greater impact as word of its effectiveness spreads (and, in fact, it is already being used at locales on both coasts). It also proves that the best pollution solutions are those that resonate with individuals.
(For more information on the Bait Tank, go to www.thebaittank.com.)