By Jon Paul “J.P.” Brooker, Florida Conservation
There has never been a better time to protect Florida’s beaches from cigarette butts that increasingly spoil our precious sandy shorelines.
The Florida Legislature can stand up for our environment and tourism economy in the upcoming session by approving legislation sponsored by state Sen. Joe Gruters that would allow local governments to ban smoking on beaches and in parks.
For the 31st straight year, cigarette butts were the most common item found on Florida’s beaches during the annual International Coastal Cleanup. For more than 35 years – and in more than 160 countries – Ocean Conservancy has organized the International Coastal Cleanup, deploying millions of volunteers to clean up tons of marine debris across the world.
No matter where you go, cigarette butts are one of the most frequently picked-up items. And while these little bits of debris are certainly an eyesore, they also pose a significant environmental threat.
Wildlife is seriously harmed by plastic on Florida’s beaches. And cigarette butts are just that: They are made of tightly bound strands of cellulose acetate, which is a type of plastic.
As butts break down on the beach, that plastic gets into the sand and water, where it can accumulate in fish and other organisms. That can hurt animal health and reproductivity, and it can even affect human health when people consume sick fish.
Meanwhile, when the plastic accumulates in the sand it can alter the sand’s temperature by collecting more heat from the sun. This severely affects sea turtles that build their nests along all 800 miles of Florida’s beaches, because sand temperature determines the sex of hatchling sea turtles. With volatile temperatures, there is a severe risk that sex ratios will be skewed, affecting sea turtle reproduction.
Floridians care deeply about our oceans and coasts. The beaches are our playgrounds and the key economic driver for many Floridians. The state’s economy is a blue economy driven by clean, healthy oceans and beaches. But that economy is threatened when the beaches are soiled with debris. What tourist wants to vacation on a dirty beach?
There is even a greater threat from marine debris to the overall health of the marine environment – and despite their tiny size, cigarette butts are part of that threat.
After several unsuccessful attempts during previous legislative sessions, state lawmakers are well-positioned to finally move toward making cigarette butts a thing of the past on Florida beaches.
The bill sponsored by Gruters, a Sarasota Republican, would allow counties and municipalities to ban smoking on beaches and in parks. It also bans smoking in state parks outright.
The legislation, SB 224, already has passed one committee, and there is a similar bill in the House, HB 105.
This is common-sense legislation that will produce real benefits for our beaches and our wildlife, and state lawmakers should approve it when the legislative session begins in January.
This piece was first published in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.
Jon Paul “J.P.” Brooker is director of Florida Conservation and a lawyer for Ocean Conservancy, the nation’s oldest marine conservation non-profit organization. He is a sixth-generation Floridian.
“The Invading Sea” is the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of news organizations across the state focusing on the threats posed by the warming climate.