The Block Island Times

One of the last great ashtrays

By Jon Campbell | Sep 01, 2011
Photo by: Jon Campbell

“I was at the grocery store, the Post Office, the Library and the Dump today,” she said, “and guess which place didn’t have cigarette butts all over the ground.”

Of course, with a set-up like that, you’d have to really not be paying attention to guess anything but the Dump, and before we go any further, let me qualify by saying that I enjoy some smokes throughout the day, and this is not about to become another tiresome tirade about that filthy habit. So let’s all agree for once and move on.

What it may be about is casual littering. Each filter tip contains up to 10,000 polymer micro-fibers, which probably degrade about as fast as plastic water bottles, and in certain areas of storm drain run-off and and waste water collection, these cast-offs may be forming their own alluvial plains.

I was scolded many years ago for acting as if the whole world was my ashtray, and now take the approach of the Japanese, many of whom carry a small container for butts, and sometimes even cigarette ash. I frequently finish the day by emptying a pocketful of used filters into the trash, thereby cementing the impression that it is a filthy habit, but at least a controlled one.

Most smokers feel put upon, unfairly taxed and socially ostracized, so in some cases this carelessness with butts might be a form of social protest, but seriously, I think it’s just carelessness, plain and simple. It’s not the same as throwing a fast food bag from a moving car, breaking bottles on the beach, sticking chewing gum under your desk, or picking your nose in public, but it’s a habit that can be remedied with some simple behavior modification, and perhaps some disposal sites other than those immediately adjacent to bars and restaurants.

With beach clean-ups, trash and recycling receptacles in convenient spots around town, and a generally good attitude on the part of residents and visitors alike, the island is certainly more presentable than many areas on the mainland, and if it hasn’t yet reached the reputation for immaculate streets that Montreal and Quebec have earned, let it only be a matter of time. Hopefully it won’t be necessary to import some French-Canadian workers to oversee the standard on the Rue de Chapel or the Boulevard de Cooneymus.

What is actually disturbing and more difficult to control are some of the things that litter the island that are beyond anyone’s local efforts. A case in point, which illustrates that no island is an island, is the proliferation of these small (2-inch) plastic mesh discs which have been showing up along our coasts. These are used in waste-water treatment and frequently escape from facilities when they are overloaded by rain water run-off.

A great quantity (millions) were released this spring from New Hampshire and Plymouth, Mass., treatment plants, and this summer have begun showing up, to which I can personally attest, on beaches in Jamestown, Matunuck, East Matunuck, and even around Clay Head here on the island.

These are designed to collect bacteria during the purification process, and presumably escape the facility laden with said bacteria. We all have great faith in the antiseptic and restorative powers of sea water, but I’ll admit that it creeps me out to see these every few feet along the high tide line. I am not aware of any official warnings about not approaching or handling these discs, and perhaps they are not dangerous, or perhaps no one is aware of how far the ocean’s currents are distributing them around the waters of New England.

As some may remember, it was only a few days after the North Cape oil spill on Moonstone Beach in Matunuck that oil began showing up in the waters immediately around the Block. The currents that run though Block Island Sound are complex and relentless; I have picked up Macys balloons on the West Side two days after the Thanksgiving parade in New York City, sneakers from a container that fell from a boat off Sakonnet Point, well to the east; these stories are not unusual.

Dead whales, turtles, porpoises and the like have been washing ashore for centuries, but this is part of the natural order. After the great medical waste scare of years past, it is certainly disconcerting to see this kind of suspicious flotsam appearing again along our coasts. Having just finished “Moby Duck”, which is about a container of plastic toys that washed overboard in the Pacific, subsequently releasing 28,800 plastic ducks, one of which may have washed up in Kennebunk, Maine, after a long drift through the Arctic Ocean, I’ll admit these thoughts are lately very much on my mind.

Here’s a link I just found about the traveling discs, should you want to read more:

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