The Other Side of the Mountain

By now, a lot of readers know that I really don’t like smoking and what it does to the human body. Just when my own voice had settled down to the basso range, my favorite uncle, who had a lovely tenor voice, was diagnosed with both lung cancer and emphysema. So the dream of singing duets with him was lost forever. I have never forgiven tobacco for that loss.

And my own father, early in his career as a physicist, patented a new kind of cigarette lighter but then decided, on principle, not to try to market it — not wanting to encourage anyone to smoke.

Recently, I was out very early in the morning when the street sweeper cruised by, sucking up the cigarette butts and other trash that had been deposited on the streets of our fair city during the past several days. And in the midst of trying to match the pitch of the sweeper’s near-monotone hum and then figure out what key the machine was humming in, I succumbed to some serious thinking about the effects of cigarettes on the quality of life in Asheville.

Let’s not even bother talking about the effects of smoking on health. By this time, all thinking adults know there’s a correlation (which is why we want to discourage smoking).

There’s another side to the question, however: the ugly residue of smoking. Environmentalists know that those nasty cigarette butts don’t decompose; instead they get swept, one way or another, toward the French Broad River. Only the ones that are properly deposited in the few available butt cans/boxes/containers or are swallowed up by the humming street sweeper avoid ending up in the river.

But as those of us who’ve taken part in the butt-pickup days organized by Quality Forward and other groups have learned to our chagrin, this persistent detritus reappears on city streets and sidewalks in a matter of hours. The “growth rate” of cigarette butts is simply amazing!

Way back in September of 2003, I wrote, in a letter to Mountain Xpress: “Those filters last practically forever, so they won’t go away without help. Here’s how smokers can help:

a) Smoke the cigarette almost to the filter, but not quite.

b) Snuff out the cigarette.

c) Pinch the tobacco and paper off the filter. Discard preferably into a butt can, or pitch it into the street (not the sidewalk!). The paper and the tobacco will biodegrade.

d) Put the filter (which essentially never degrades) in your pocket for later discard in a trash bin.

“If every Ashevillean could learn to ‘field strip’ and discard his or her cigarette in this manner, it would improve the appearance of the whole city for all of us,” I wrote. Two years later, I still like the idea, and I appreciate the friend who showed me this trick years ago.

However, we need more of those heavy, gourd-shaped, cigarette-disposal units ASAP. They really don’t cost much, and they hold lots of butts and generally work well. If we had a few dozen of them downtown, there would always be a place to deposit cigarette butts.

There are at least two additional approaches to this problem. First, let me thank young Erik, with whom I had a very interesting conversation on the street recently. He suggests that we impose a 1-cent deposit on all cigarettes with filters, which would be refunded when one turned in one’s filters at the store and bought more weeds. It would work like the beverage-container deposits that have helped many states clean up their roadsides. And it would give the street people in downtown Asheville another source of revenue besides panhandling.

Another idea also comes to mind: If someone could develop a cigarette filter that would biodegrade within a few days, the effect on the French Broad River (and, indeed, all other waterways) would be substantial. Once some group had developed and patented such a filter, I would pledge to step out of my conservative boots and try to get a law passed requiring its use on cigarettes sold in North Carolina. And if the licensing fee were, say, 1 cent per carton, the development group would turn a nice profit.

I can’t help but notice that the sidewalks at UNCA aren’t littered with butts. Somehow, the students and faculty have come to understand that the beauty of their campus is in their hands. And as we work to improve the beauty of our shared downtown, won’t you smokers please, please, please dispose of your butts correctly?

[George Keller is an adjunct professor of physics at UNCA. He’s the webmaster for RiverLink and also serves on the Asheville Civic Center Commission.]

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