Third District Santa Cruz County Supervisor Justin Cummings and staff member Trina Barton participate in special cigarette butt cleanup for Coastal Cleanup Day 2023. (Rachel Kippen/Contributed)
According to a recent NOAA study, plastic fragments, cigarette butts, and wrappers comprise the majority of marine debris retrieved in Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary by count at 59%. These findings are illustrated in a report funded by NOAA’s Marine Debris Program released in October 2023 titled “Marine debris on the shoreline of Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary: As assessment of activities contributing to marine debris, categories and composition, spatial distribution, and predictor variables.”
The study spans a five-year period from Jan. 1, 2017 to Dec. 31, 2021, providing a total of 4,725 survey points collected by more than 37,000 volunteers.
Authors Pam Krone and Jazmine Mejia-Munoz, both on Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary’s water quality team, recognized that many community science organizations along the Central Coast collect shoreline trash and marine debris data. A goal outlined in the 2021 MBNMS Management Plan, Krone and Mejia-Munoz endeavored to synthesize and analyze their efforts to identify prevalent types of marine debris on the shoreline as well as their distribution, in order to assess potential debris sources and transport mechanisms.
“In 2019, MBARI conducted a marine microplastics study by Anela Choy that confirmed that plastics are located at all depths within Monterey Bay from the seafloor to the surface,” says Krone. “As our understanding of the issue grew, we decided to highlight marine debris and develop specific strategies and actions. We recognized that community science data could help inform our understanding of the issue. We know that plastics enter the marine and human food web, that it harms marine organisms, that it’s toxic to human bodies, and that it’s found everywhere from the most distant mountain tops and polar landscapes to the deep trenches of the sea. There’s even a disease in seabirds called ‘plasticosis,’ the scarring and inflammation of bird’s digestive tracts due to ingesting plastic waste. Addressing marine debris is now part of the sanctuary’s overall management plan.”
Krone “harmonized” the data sets from five different organizations including Save Our Shores, Surfrider, Ocean Conservancy, the Downtown Streets Team, and NOAA’s Marine Debris Monitoring and Assessment Project.
While each organization uses different data cards and protocols, they all share similarities. For example, some data cards include forks, knives, and spoons as separate items, while others list “utensils.” The harmonizing process involved creating shared, overarching categories to reduce redundancy while including the largest possible dataset.
The study includes 276 shoreline miles broken down into 28 segments. Debris fell into seven different “activity” categories including ‘fishing,’ ‘recreation,’ ‘personal hygiene,’ ‘eating and drinking,’ ‘smoking,’ ‘dumping and disaster,’ and ‘various.’ “Basically in every single segment of the shoreline, ‘eating and drinking’ and ‘smoking’ were the two predominant activities that resulted in the majority of the debris,” says Krone. “Everything else was secondary to those two big producers. ‘Eating and drinking,’ which accounted for 27.9% of debris, includes a variety of products such as utensils, plastic chip and candy wrappers, take out containers, bottled water, and straws. However, for ‘smoking,’ which accounted for 24.5% of shoreline trash, almost all of the debris was one type – cigarette butts. Sure, there was cigarette packaging, lighters, and some e-cigarettes, but the smoking related category was almost entirely cigarette butts.”
The study timeframe included the pandemic and predictably the only trash category that demonstrated consistent annual relative increases all five years was Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). The area with the highest trash density was segment nine in Santa Cruz, spanning from Natural Bridges State Beach to Opal Cliffs/Hooper Beach in Pleasure Point/Capitola.
Krone says she’s pleasantly surprised by how helpful beach cleanups are in preventing debris from entering the ocean. “My other big surprise is that sometimes a single prevention activity is not sufficient in eliminating the item. For example, some studies show that just putting out cigarette containers on the beach will not prevent cigarette butt waste on beaches if that action is done alone, especially because we know that cigarette butts can wash down a storm drain or river and still wind up on the beach or in the ocean. It reminded me that it can take multiple avenues of reinforcement to move in the right direction.”
This year, Santa Cruz County Third District Supervisor Justin Cummings has prioritized exploring policy solutions to address tobacco waste alongside First District Supervisor Manu Koening. Both offices are engaged in community outreach and are slated to bring proposals back to the full board. “Banning smoking in most public locations has led to huge environmental and public health gains including improving air quality and reducing secondhand smoke exposure,” says Supervisor Cummings. He continues, “However, we know that cigarette butts are still littered in locations where smoking is banned, that filters have no proven health benefit, and that cigarette butts remain the number one littered plastic item in Monterey Bay and on the planet. We are considering producer responsibility models that will hold Big Tobacco accountable. We can’t clean our way out of this mess, and we shouldn’t have to pay the price.”
Both Cummings and the NOAA study reference the huge cost of cleanup efforts incurred by governments and taxpayers. One conservative figure from the U.S. EPA estimates that California state and local governments spend over $520 million annually to clean up and prevent litter from entering the state’s rivers and streams and polluting beaches and the ocean.
“We are very grateful for our community volunteers who clean the beach as well as river and inland areas,” adds Mejia-Munoz. “The cleanups are valuable for reducing pollution in the sanctuary, of course. But without these cleanups, we would not have access to this data, which helps dictate the effective upstream prevention efforts we can take.”
To access the shoreline report, visit: montereybay.noaa.gov. To receive updates about or get involved in Supervisors Cummings’ and Koening’s efforts, email: Third.District@santacruzcountyca.gov with the subject line “tobacco waste.”
Rachel Kippen is an ocean educator and sustainability advocate in Santa Cruz County and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.