See More Butts

Thanks to the smoking ban, city sidewalks are littered with cigarettes. Whose job is it to clean them up?

Lung cancer or litter,which would you prefer? The state's 63 percent approval of Initiative 901, the indoor smoking ban that took effect 11 months ago, was clearly a vote for public health. But there turned out to be unintended consequences: Cast out of restaurants and bars to huddle in alcoves, crouch under awnings, and shiver in the rain, Seattle smokers have to do something with the remnants of their last drag. Before, there were ashtrays inside. Now, unless standing next to a convenient steel garbage bin known to be free of potentially flammable debris (funny how hard those are to find), even the most environmentally sensitive of smokers revert to a familiar strategy: Drop butt to sidewalk, grind with foot, and walk away.

I-901 mandates that sidewalk smokers refrain from lighting up within 25 feet of building entryways, windows, and the like—which usually puts them in front of another business (or residence). Compounding the issue, restaurants and bars aren't required to provide outdoor ashtrays for patrons who puff away on the public right of way. If you're lucky enough to live or work within one of Seattle's six Business Improvement Areas, those courteous uniformed folks with the rolling trash barrels may sweep up the butts. In other neighborhoods, it's a different—and growing—problem.

"I know we get calls from people living in condos adjacent to bars complaining that the sidewalks are filthy with cigarette butts," says Margaret Irvine of the Queen Anne Chamber of Commerce.

Bar owners are complaining, too. Previously a vocal opponent of I-901, Tini Bigs proprietor Keith Robbins says, "It's horrible, all the cigarette butts out there. If I wait for the city to clean it up, it'll take forever. Every single day I have to have an employee clean up outside. There was none of that before." And if butts are deposited by bus riders waiting at the corner of Denny and First Avenue North where Tini Bigs and Robbins' newest bar, Hula Hula, are located, Robbins tells his staff to clean that up, too. He's also invested in special outdoor ashtrays (shaped like an inverted funnel with a small butt-sized opening at the top). Robbins is careful to keep them chained up, however: "We've had one disappear. It's a pain in the ass."

The labor and cost of outdoor ashtrays—priced at $50 and up—aren't terribly onerous, Robbins concedes. Rather, for affected merchants, it's the extra burden of cleaning up the mess that falls onto the gray area (literally) of city sidewalks. The city departments of Transportation and Public Utilities say the property owner or merchant is responsible for cleaning up the sidewalks in front of their buildings.

So when I-901 was being drafted, did the city consider placing new cans for the coming filter onslaught? "That was not discussed," says Vic Roberson of Seattle Public Utilities. "Unless there's a huge public outcry . . . we're probably not going to add extra cans. It's enough to manage with 800 cans." He estimates that 20 or 30 disappear annually, each costing $500 to replace. Then there are the ones that catch fire—sometimes owing to burning butts: "We've had some melted liners; it does happen."

Says James Apa of Public Health– Seattle & King County: "There isn't anything specific to the law pertaining to cigarette butts" and their disposal. But indoors, Apa is careful to add, "compliance has been very high. It's been very, very successful." He estimates that over the past year, only two fines have been levied after 750 initial complaints related to the ban and 25-foot rule.

Outdoor enforcement, meanwhile, is someone else's problem. Although by municipal code you can be fined $54 for littering (for any material up to 1 cubic foot), the police haven't doled out a recent rash of butt-flicking citations. Recalling his past experience as a beat cop, Seattle Police Department spokesperson Sean Whitcomb recalls writing a few such tickets: "Absolutely, it's a crime." But warnings are more common than citations, which aren't statistically tracked by type of refuse. "We enforce littering—the act of littering," says Whitcomb. That means an officer has to see a smoker midtoss, which is unlikely to provoke lights, sirens, and a tire-squealing U-turn in the middle of the street, Starsky & Hutch style.

Butt measurement turns out to be no less difficult than enforcement. According to Downtown Seattle Association spokesperson Anita Woo, DSA cleanup crews have been reporting more butts on the sidewalk since I-901 took effect. Meanwhile, there's new talk from Public Health and various public-housing authorities about forcing renters outside to smoke, which will only put more stubs on the street.

"I have heard lots of anecdotal evidence," says Megan Warfield of the state Department of Ecology, which periodically extrapolates the volume of butts by figuring it as a percentage of overall trash along our roadways. She explains that the DOE's most recent study was in 2004, prior to the ban. The agency then estimated that about 122 tons of butts were littered onto Washington streets during the year, from which the agency's math yields about 488 million butts in total. By Seattle Weekly's math, that's about 80 butts per person per year, with some 45 million stubs in Seattle alone. At an average weight of 0.12 ounces per pack, that's around 8 tons of debris—equal in heft to a stack of five Toyota Priuses.

What are these little brown bastards made of? Cellulose acetate, a plastic derivative that is slow to biodegrade. Where do they go? Unless swept up by merchants or eaten by pigeons (or toddlers sampling free street food), butts are mostly rain-flushed into city storm drains. Downtown, some drains lead to Metro treatment plants, while other feed directly into Elliott Bay, where the butts can be noshed on by salmon and seagulls—or just wash back onto the beach while you're having a picnic at Alki.

For Robbins and other business owners, butt-sweeping remains something of an unfunded mandate: It adds to their labor costs just as the ban is cutting into profits inside. Robbins says revenues at his old Watertown club (which became Hula Hula) fell 30 percent after the ban.

Yet the larger food-and-beverage- industry picture isn't so bleak. According to Antony Anton of the Washington Restaurant Association, 85 percent of WRA membership was already nonsmoking before the ban. As a result, collective revenues are only down 4 percent since the ban. Yet smaller operators, mainly independent taverns and bars, can take a big hit within that aggregate decline, he says.

"Is it significant enough to ignite the Legislature?" Anton asks. "I think not." A spokesperson for Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, confirms that the 25-foot rule won't likely be revisited during the current legislative session.

Which brings us to the responsibility of the customer: As others have written, lighting a cigarette ritually re-enacts man's mastery over fire. It can be a social glue, or a simple means of flirting. It's a fundamentally deliberate act and—as any advocate of smokers' rights would argue—a matter of individual choice. But so, of course, is littering.

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