On a recent hot and humid summer day, the St. Simon’s Island fishing pier offered some shade and a nice breeze for lots of people fishing and crabbing.
But that wasn’t all they were doing. Many were smoking. And their cigarette butts had to go somewhere.
“It was just surprising to us,” said Katy Smith of the UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant, “when you would see people not only casting a fishing line but also flicking a cigarette butt in the water.”
All those butts end up on the ground or in the water. Lea King-Badyna of the environmental group Keep Golden Isles Beautiful said they add up quickly.
“When we performed the litter scan and picked up the littered cigarette butts, we picked up over two thousand in a very small area,” she said. “And so just looking, it’s easy to see cigarette butts - it looks like maybe, in some areas, they’re not that many. But once you start picking up and counting, the numbers skyrocket.”
This is true all along Georgia’s beaches. On Tybee Island, volunteers said they pick up 3,000 to 5,000 butts whenever they do a litter pick-up a couple times a week.
It’s not just an eyesore. Cigarette butts contain the filter, which is full of harmful chemicals from cigarette smoke. And it’s made of plastic, not cotton or paper, so it takes a long time to break down.
So, Smith and King-Badyna were also out on the pier with the fishers and smokers.
“If you have anybody in your world who smokes, we’re giving away free cup ashtrays and pocket ashtrays, so feel free to take some back,” King-Badyna called to passersby.
A lot of people kept walking, but some took notice and took a small plastic ashtray or two.
“Our strategy is to get it out really fast,” said King-Badyna, “and saying that they’re free.”
This group got together with others in all six of Georgia’s coastal counties to secure a $15,000 grant from Keep America Beautiful. They’re calling it “Georgia’s Coast Is Not An Ashtray.”
In part, it’s paying for two kinds of ashtrays: a cup similar to a travel coffee mug, with a hole in the top for cigarette butts, and a small “pocket ashtray.”
“It looks like a tiny little change purse,” King-Badyna said of the little black ovals, which snap shut to keep the ash off your clothes.
They’ve also installed freestanding ashtrays, and ashtray boxes that mount on poles. And the grant is funding thousands of signs for business windows and coasters to go in bars.
Farther up the coast on Tybee Island, volunteers are working a little more closely with the local bars. Locals are rounding up cans, and they’ve got some local bars like Huc-a-Poos and Hotel Tybee saving them too.
“You can take cans on the beach, so naturally there’s a lot of cans floating around Tybee,” explained Tim Arnold of the Tybee Clean Beach Volunteers.
The volunteers are turning those cans into yet another type of ashtray. At Huc-a-Poos last month, they had an assembly line going.
First, volunteers wash out the cans and cut off the tops. Then they cut vertical strips all around the can. Next they weave the strips of aluminum around the edge, like making a braid or a friendship bracelet.
The finished product has an edge sort of like a woven basket. The island’s Beach Ambassadors, who set up under tents by popular beach access points, hand them out. Arnold said the ambassadors are going through about 200 a week. The biggest challenge is turning out to be making enough ashtrays.
“We may have half the island making ashtrays out of cans next year,” he joked. “But you know, we’re already saturated in alcohol; we may as well make something productive out of the resulting can.”
Something they hope will keep at least some butts off the beach.