Wearing work gloves, Stephanie Smith stood at North Avenue Beach, ready to take a quick stroll down to the water and back.
It had been a few weeks since the city's beaches opened and a new smoking ban had taken effect. So Smith, of the environmental organization Alliance of the Great Lakes, wondered: How many cigarette butts would she find?
Stuffing the butts into an Old Navy plastic bag-"Reuse and recycle, right?"-Smith paced in semihunch like a clue-hungry detective, her eyes narrowing into sharp focus as she plucked scraps from the damp sand. "It's hard to tell how long they've been here and that's part of the mystery," she said. "A lot of these are probably leftovers from a few days ago. Or even last season. Who knows?"
One thing is for certain: Smith never waited longer than a quick five-count before finding another butt, or a fistful. Filters were scattered everywhere, from water's edge to inches from new "NO SMOKING" signs adorning the north face of lifeguard stands. At the beach house-where similar signs were curiously, conspicuously absent-Smith dumped the contents onto a table. Though damp and in many cases shriveled with age, the butts reeked like an ashtray inhaled at close range. Smith recoiled in disgust. In all, she collected 137 butts in a few minutes, enough to make her shake her head:
"Incredible-not in a good way."
Largely spurred by environmentalists such as Smith who've spent years ridding the sands of countless cigarette butts, the city will issue $500 fines this summer to anyone caught puffing or tossing a cigarette scrap within 15 feet of a beach. It's not so much about filling Chicago's coffers, or squelching secondhand smoke, as to address a larger problem affecting the Chicago area-as well as waterways and coastal regions worldwide.
Experts say cigarette butts rank at the very top of litter problems-not just for their ubiquity, but for their toxicity and non-biodegradable nature.
The things stick around in sewers and soil for years, even decades. Sanitation workers can't clean them up fast enough, and volunteer cleanup crews can only pick up so many, every so often.
"It's about cleanliness," said Chicago Park District superintendent Tim Mitchell. "People have been using North Avenue Beach as an ashtray. By leaving cigarette butts on the beach, that adds to the pollution of the lake, and that's our greatest natural resource."
Not that Chicago's streets have it any easier. Walk down a busy stretch of the Loop and it's not unusual to count up hundreds of butts in a blocklong stretch. That butts turn up with such abundance irks Matt Smith, spokesman for the Department of Streets and Sanitation. "Smokers tend not to be very courteous with their material disposal," Smith said. "It gets thrown down and we have to sweep it up with our regular street debris. It's an ongoing problem; it's dirty and a remnant of someone's habit."
The city has no specific laws against cigarette butt litter on streets, Smith added, because that kind of behavior is already covered by something called the Casting Refuse and Liquids Ordinance. Under that law, a smoker caught tossing a butt from a moving car or on a public sidewalk could get fined anywhere from $50 to $200.