SARASOTA (WWSB) - You’ve probably heard about the growing effort to ban plastic straws, but according to experts, there’s an even worse pollutant - also made of plastic - that has caused harm to our beaches and our environment for years.
“There is a study out from Keep America Beautiful that shows that cigarette butts are the number one littered item in America," Wendi Crisp, the Executive Director of Keep Sarasota County Beautiful, told us.
The plastic in cigarette filters can take decades to decompose, so a few years ago, Sarasota County tried to ban smoking on Suncoast beaches and in public parks..
“But the unfortunate thing about that ban, is that the state of Florida decided that cities and counties should not have the authority to ban smoking outdoors,” explained John Holic, the Mayor of Venice.
Now, Florida is one of only eight states that allows smoking on its beaches.
“Cigarette butts are actually one of the biggest littered items that we find here in Sarasota County. We typically find upwards of tens of thousands of cigarette butts in a one day cleanup event in probably about 30 locations around the county," said Crisp.
Keep Sarasota County Beautiful hosts three annual cleanups at popular public spots. The organization says each of its volunteers typically collects nearly 4,000 cigarette butts each day.
“It’s not a new phenomenon. For some reasons, smokers feel like they have a right to litter. They don’t even think about it. They just throw their cigarette out, and the beach becomes a huge ash tray.. the parks become huge ash trays… and the streets become huge ash trays. Until we can change that mentality and have people take responsibility for their own actions, the only thing we can do is pass laws to correct it. The state is refusing for us to do that, so now it has to be educational," said Mayor Holic.
In 2017, Keep Sarasota County Beautiful received a $5,000 grant for “The Cigarette Litter Prevention Program”. It used that money to install more than 50 ash receptacles, placing them on all Suncoast beaches and in many parks. Local restaurants have even joined the effort.
“We actually do it in all three of our restaurants because all three of them are located on water. Keeping clean water ways, whether it’s the beaches or rivers, it’s all really important. Us, with our locations, it’s really important for us to help out whichever way we can,” said Justin Pachota, a Co-owner of Sharkey’s on the Pier in Venice. Since the initiation of the program last year, Sarasota County has seen a 78% decrease in cigarette litter.
“Certainly, having those receptacles available for people to use them and they’re marked clearly, so there is educational information on them, and then we’ve also run some awareness campaigns as well with some banners on the beaches. I think all of those things, working together, has helped us with the decrease in cigarette litter,” said Crisp.
Keep Sarasota County Beautiful is also offering wo items for free to residents and visitors: an ash tray for your car that can fit perfectly into your cup holder and a bag where you can store used cigarettes until you find the right place to dispose. You can request them here: https://sarasotacountygovernment.formstack.com/forms/portable_pocket_ashtray_request