Cigarette butts are one of those things that don’t belong in public places, but it’s so common to see them everywhere we don’t even question why they’re not being disposed of in the right way. But all those butts being tossed out of car windows as drivers cruise down the highways or frustratingly wait in traffic jams, casually tossed onto sidewalks and street corners, and even left behind on beaches and in parks are now adding up to become the most abundant form of plastic waste in the world.
While not commonly seen as plastic waste, cigarette filters are made of a plastic called cellulose acetate. When they’re not disposed off properly, they don’t just pollute the environment with plastic, but also with nicotine, heavy metals, and many other chemicals they’ve absorbed. These filters can take up to ten years to degrade, and even as they do, they break down into tiny pieces of plastic, called microplastics, that outlive them by years, and pose an increasing hazard in waterways and oceans.
This November, a group of young people from Pune, in the Indian state of Maharashtra, came up with an innovative solution to get people to notice them and encourage proper disposal of the tiny but deadly cigarette butt. Instead of picking up the butts off the ground, they began to single them out by drawing circles around them with chalk as part of a campaign called “Chalk of Shame”.
“This year on Diwali (the Hindu festival of lights), we couldn’t organise community celebrations due to Covid restrictions,” says Vivek Gurav, the 25-year-old founder of Pune Ploggers, the group that started this initiative. “Every year, we draw rangoli on the streets but this year even that wasn’t possible since there was no Diwali pahat (traditional festivities held on lawns, open gardens, and auditoriums in Pune), so we decided to replace that with colourful chalk circles around cigarette butts. We also wrote slogans in Marathi and English to raise awareness and shame people who were littering.”
Plogging is an eco-friendly exercise through which people pick up trash while jogging or brisk walking. It originated in Sweden and has been making its way across the globe. While people usually do it as a part of their personal routines, Gurav saw it as a way to address social issues and converted it into a community level initiative. Since October 2019, 80-100 volunteers have been organising plogging drives across Pune city four times a week.
On these drives, they would find cigarette butts all over the place. This observation isn’t just restricted to India, but is a global phenomenon. “Cigarette butts and other tobacco product waste are the items that are most commonly picked up during urban and beach clean-ups worldwide,” San Diego State University Public Health Professor Thomas Novotny and researcher Elli Slaughter wrote in an article published in Current Environmental Health Reports, a scientific journal. “An estimated 4.5 trillion of the annual 6 trillion cigarettes sold worldwide do not end up in a dustbin or ashtray, but are simply flicked away along a roadside or on a pavement. The ban on indoor smoking may have exacerbated this.”
Gurav and his also team faced a challenge in the sense of the pandemic making picking up stubs a hazard. “Usually, the task of picking up cigarette butts on our plogging drives was designated to one person. However, with the pandemic coming into the picture, some medical students who are part of the group warned us they could pose a risk of infection. So picking them up wasn’t an option anymore,” Gurav tells VICE.
The “Chalk of Shame” initiative was mainly carried out around tapris (a shanty tea stall where people often go for cigarette breaks), and the group found a way to involve the stall owners into it as well. Now, after the cigarette butts have caught people’s attention for some days, the stall owners clean them up.
Many countries, including Italy, Singapore, and the UK, levy hefty fines for dropping cigarette butts, but India doesn’t have any such regulations as of now. While the country did ban smoking in all public places in 2008, the ban hasn’t been very effective, as can be seen by the abundance of cigarette butts in public places. In September, however, the National Green Tribunal directed the Central Pollution Control Board to frame guidelines for the disposal of cigarette/bidi butts in the interest of the environment.
Taking cognisance of this, Pune Ploggers also got in touch with the Pune Municipal Corporation and informed them of their plans. They asked them not to clear off the cigarette butts with circles around them, so people can take notice.
As for the impact of this initiative, Gurav says they’ve received a mixed response. “A lot of smokers came to us to understand the environmental impact they were causing. After seeing the cigarette butts in the circles, a lot of cigarette stall owners also started installing trash cans and asking people not to litter”, he says. “At the same time, a lot of people who were smoking around these areas were offended and told us we were doing this only because we had nothing else to do. It didn’t go down well with them and they even threatened to call the municipality on us.”
Butthurt smokers aside, the Chalk of Shame campaign received support from an unlikely group: mothers worried about how smoking affects their kids.
“Cigarette stalls around residential areas are regular haunts of the people who live there. Because of the constant littering, mothers wouldn’t allow their children to play around those areas since they were afraid of the effect it would have on their impressionable minds.”
This also sheds light on the fact that smoking has an immoral connotation in India and people are often judged for it. But the idea here is not to shame smokers for smoking, but to draw attention to the shameful act of tossing it carelessly.
Gurav says, “It’s important to remind people of their duties towards cleanliness and maintenance of our public property. But we’re not commenting on their personal choices. Everyone has a reason for their actions, and we’ve even been told by doctors how smoking helps some people relieve stress. We don’t think we’re in a position to question them for it, but harming the environment is not okay.”
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