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What’s got you scratching your head about Milwaukee and the region? Bubbler Talk is a series that puts your curiosity front and center.

Discarded Cigarette Butts: More Than An Annoying Eyesore in Milwaukee

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Susan Bence
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Milwaukee Public Radio

Gross. Annoying. Ugly. But, illegal? This week, WUWM's Bubbler Talk answers the question: Is littering by throwing cigarette butts legal in Milwaukee? 

The City of Milwaukee has had an ordinance on the books since 1999. But according to a spokesperson, “To the best of our collective [Department of Public Works] knowledge, we have not issued any citations for cigarette butt littering.”

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Credit Susan Bence
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Some smokers snuff their cigarettes on the sides of buildings.

“It is littering and it is fined, but there’s not enough cops here to fine you, so they just get to do their thing,” Joe Wilson says. He's with Keep Greater Milwaukee Beautiful.

The problem isn’t exclusive to Milwaukee or the state of Wisconsin. “It’s the number one litter item in the world. It beats plastic bottles, it beats paper, it beats those little ugly plastic bags that are out there,” Wilson says.

According to Keep America Beautiful:

• In the past decade, cigarette smoking in America has decreased 28%, yet cigarette butts remain the most littered item in the U.S. and across the globe.

"It's the number one litter item in the world."

• Dropping cigarette butts and cigar tips to the ground, putting them in planters, and disposing of them in waterways is littering.

•  The overall littering rate for cigarette butts is 65%, and tobacco products comprise 38% of all U.S. roadway litter.

As for environmental impacts:

• 32% of litter at storm drains is tobacco products.

• 95% of cigarette filters are composed of cellulose acetate, a form of plastic that does not quickly degrade and can persist in the environment.

• Filters from tobacco products are harmful to waterways and wildlife. Nearly 80% of marine debris comes from land-based sources. Cigarette butt litter can also pose a hazard to animals and marine life when they mistake filters for food.

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Joe Wilson commends this office building for adding cigarette butt collection stations. Still some smokers flick their butts to the pavement.

“A lot of people who are smokers do not see cigarettes as a litter issue,” Wilson says.

Lisa Dunn says she get’s it. She had just finished a smoke outside the building along the Milwaukee River, where she works.

Dunn dutifully deposited its remains into a disposal container. It resembles a giant game board piece, specifically designed for butts next to the building.

Dunn says she never tosses her butts to the pavement or into the river. “I see people flick them into the river all the time, it drives me crazy. I mean it’s not the cleanest river, but let’s not make it any dirtier, right,” she says.

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Credit Susan Bence
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Joe Wilson hands out portable cigarette butt holders, resembling a small change purse, to reinforce proper disposal.

Dunn says she doesn’t smoke in her car – so says there’s no way she’d be a road-side dumper, but has observed others in the act.

“I do, and sometimes you’ll pull up in a parking lot or something and you’ll see a big pile where someone dumps their ashtray out,” she says.

An extra FYI, littering smokers might face stiffer scrutiny on the open highway.

A year ago, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled state troopers can legally stop smokers who toss cigarette butts on the road.

The infraction comes with a fine of up to $500.

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Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.
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