No 'butts' about it, cigarettes are No. 1 item along local shorelines

SEATTLE - Millions of cigarette butts, bottles and bags, hundreds of thousands of cans, caps and straws - this is not a count of items found in the landfill - these are the things showing up in the ocean, the Puget Sound and along Washington shorelines.

"It's a pretty shocking statistic," says Kathryn Davis, stewardship coordinator with the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance. "It really lets people know marine debris is a problem and continues to be a problem."

For more than 10 years the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance has participated in a global volunteer effort to help collect and record the trash found in local waterways, including the Sound.

During last year's International Coastal Cleanup, more than 560,000 volunteers from around the world picked up 10.1 million pounds of trash along nearly 20,000 miles of coastlines.

Below are the totals for the top 10 items found, according to Ocean Conservancy:

  • 2,117,931 Cigarette/cigarette filters
  • 1,140,222 Food wrappers/containers
  • 1,065,171 Plastic beverage bottles
  • 1,019,902 Plastic bags
  • 958,893 Caps, lids
  • 692,767 Cups, plates, forks, knives, spoons
  • 611,048 Straws, stirrers
  • 521,730 Glass beverage bottles
  • 339,875 Beverage cans
  • 298,332 Paper bags

Organizers for the event say of that, more than 3,100 pounds of trash came from Washington State shorelines and waterways. And just like in years past - cigarette butts remained the number one item recovered both globally and locally with more than 2 million butts collected worldwide.

"There is a fundamental disconnect between users of cigarettes and the fact those butts are actually plastic trash," says Nicholas Mallos, conservation biologist with Ocean Conservancy. "At first glance they don't appear to be plastic, at least not through the same manner as plastic bags and bottles."

Mallos says while the cigarette industry is actively searching for ways to introduce a biodegradable cigarette butt it's important for the consumer to make changes in their daily lives and that's what the 28th annual International Coastal Cleanup is about - raising awareness about the kinds of things people use every day that end up on our shores, waterways and ultimately in the ocean.

This Saturday there are nearly a dozen organized cleanup efforts planned around the Sound as part of the global event, including two at Alki Beach, one at Centennial Park, and another on Blake Island. The trash data retrieved from each event is collected and complied by Ocean Conservancy and then put together in a report. Mallos says this information is critical and can help inform not only the consumer but also policy makers.

"The data is used to support political efforts at the local, state, national and international level," Mallos says. "Many bag bans, bag fees and take-out container use is formed from the data. Industry has to take accountability and responsibility for many of the plastic items ending up on our beaches and in the marine environment."

One of the ways Mallos says industry can help keep beaches and waterways debris free is thinking about the packaging they use.

"Packaging, when used correctly, is a wonderful thing but there are places where plastic in packaging is not necessary. We do not need to wrap cucumbers in plastic or bananas," Mallos says.

Davis with Puget Soundkeeper Alliance says the goal of this weekend's cleanups is obviously to remove as much trash from the local waterways and the Sound as possible but she also says it can't be the only solution to the marine debris problem.

"The best thing to do is reduce the waste in the first place," Davis says. "We need to take caution to properly dispose of debris in the first place."

The Puget Soundkeeper Alliance organizes weekly boat patrols, both kayak and motor boat, along Lake Union and the Duwamish River.

"A big part of our program is outreach and education about marine debris," Davis says. "So knowing what are the main sources and main items being recovered helps us inform our outreach strategies."

More about this Saturday's cleanup events and the data collected last year can be found online.