Cigarette Butts Prove A Lasting Drag

TAMPA — The Tampa Bay region is much like the rest of the world when it comes to the origin and content of its shoreline litter, according to a report issued Thursday.

It starts as roadside trash, is flushed into drains by rainfall and ends up in the water. Topping the list of the most commonly found piece of trash: cigarette butts.

The Ocean Conservancy, a nonprofit environmental organization based in Washington, D.C., compiled the results of a shoreline cleanup day conducted by volunteers last year in 68 countries. It covered a combined 34,000 miles of shoreline and collected 7 million pounds of litter, 80 percent of which had been washed from land into the water.

In all, 1.9 million cigarette filters were gathered.

“People think they are biodegradable,” said Kathryn Novak, coordinator for the Florida branch of the Ocean Conservancy.

They’re not, so think before flicking that cigarette butt out the car window.

“It’s going to be in Tampa Bay the next rain,” said Bill Sanders, executive director of Keep Pinellas Beautiful and organizer of the cleanup in Pinellas County. “All road litter goes straight into the bayous.”

The region’s flat terrain, unscreened storm drains and miles of waterways combine to lead roadside litter to bays, bayous and beaches. Currents can even carry debris out the mouth of the Bay to the Gulf, where it comes ashore on the beach, Sanders said.

“Once a current catches something, it can go anywhere,” he said.

The area’s shorelines, both the beach and along the Bay, have been getting cleaner over the years. Sanders said the Adopt a Road programs, with groups or businesses cleaning litter from roadsides several times a year, has reduced the amount of trash reaching the water.

Aside from cigarette filters, the most common type of litter found in Florida were caps and lids, followed by food wrappers.

The cleanup is more than just a cosmetic effort to remove litter, Novak said.

Plastic bags were a frequent find in Florida and can be deadly to sea turtles. Floating plastic bags look like jellyfish, a favorite food for turtles. The bags can clog a turtle’s stomach, making it think it is full and stop eating, or jam in its digestive tract.

Either can be fatal.

Monofilament fishing line can be a tangling trap for birds and manatees.

“It’s really dangerous. It’s strong and doesn’t degrade,” Novak said.

Other types of litter found on Florida shores included 5,377 toys, 1,069 shotgun shells, 135 appliances and 78 syringes.

Though common items dominate the cleanups, some unusual things do pop up, such as the headless goat found last year along Courtney Campbell Parkway.

Sanders said volunteers have found a safe, an envelope with an ultrasound image of a baby, false teeth, and a barnacle-crusted, antique, child’s potty chair. Wallets and credit cards are common finds.

“At first places may seem pristine, but once you start looking it’s surprising what you will find,” Novak said.

Reporter Neil Johnson can be reached at (352) 544-5214 or [email protected]