Troubled by the levels of litter I have been seeing on Oakland streets, I have recently started picking up all the trash discarded on my street, taking garbage bags with me when I walk around the lake (the bags fill up quickly), and reporting what I can on See Click Fix.
This simple effort has been a stark lesson in what a large proportion of litter comes from smoking products -- cigarette butts and cigar plastic wrappers and mouthpieces. Yes, these butts and wrappers are unsightly, contributing to the sense that Oakland doesn't care about Oakland -- similar to the effect of overflowing trash cans, litter-strewn public parks and lake, and graffiti.
I believe this erodes the public trust, leaving citizens to wonder why they should take care of their surroundings when the city fails to do so with the tax dollars they have contributed. And surely we all know the social ills that follow on from blight.
Further, cigarette butts are toxic to humans and the environment, adding known carcinogens to our soil and waterways, and degrading local wildlife and habitat. The fire hazard of a flicked butt is, sadly, well known.
While emptying public trash cans and fishing traffic cones and shopping carts from waterways is beyond the scope of individual citizens, there is one thing we can ask of them: Stop throwing your cigarette butts into parks and down storm drains.
This form of blight has been so normalized that people hardly bat an eye when they see a smoker flick a butt onto the ground, and that has to change.
I look to Oakland city council members to lead the way. I urge everyone when at home this evening, or when headed to lunch tomorrow, to count the number of cigarette butts you see along the curb -- you'll be astonished. Ask yourselves where these butts must end up, and what forms of damage they do along the way.
What to do?
Raise the fine on cigarette littering and initiate an enforcement campaign. In the process of cleaning up our streets and waterways, police would raise lots of money for the city, provide an opportunity to interact with the public, and create the sense that Oakland is, after all, caring for Oakland.
Second, place a ban on the sale of the items that most contribute to litter in Oakland's streets. The other piece of the problem is that we're not holding companies accountable for the litter-generating products they create. Why can't a cigarette pack come with an ashtray compartment built into the bottom? Why are cigars wrapped in plastic, not paper? Why aren't the mouthpieces made of paper?
If the industry can't control its users, we have a right to require that it control its products. Oakland could set a standard for sustainable consumption, only allowing those products for sale that won't degrade our community's health and vibrancy.
Illinois just passed a law establishing stiff fines for discarding cigarette butts. Let's follow their lead.
Joe Chojnacki is an Oakland resident.