CHAPEL HILL — Meg McGurk knew cigarette butts were a problem. She just didn't know how big a problem.
About 6,664 butts later, she had her answer.
McGurk, assistant director of the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership, is now working to get smokers to drop their butts in new receptacles instead of on the street.
"This is just one of the issues [downtown], but it's a big one," said McGurk, a former smoker. "A lot of people don't really notice. But if you look down, you'll see it."
More than unsightly, cigarette butts are bad for the environment.
Cigarettes are the most littered item in the U.S., according to Keep America Beautiful, the folks who brought you Iron Eyes Cody's "Crying Indian" campaign in the 1970s.
A January 2008 survey of more than 1,000 smokers found 35 percent toss five or more cigarettes per pack to the ground, according to the anti-litter organization.
Of special concern are cigarette filters, which are made of cellulose acetate, a material that degrades very slowly.
"The filters are what keep a lot of the carcinogens out of your lungs, so they still have a lot of toxins in them," said Wendy Smith, Chapel Hill's environmental education coordinator.
When rains carry cigarette butts down storm drains into waterways, or when birds pick up butts to line their nests, those toxins can endanger wildlife, she said.
Keep America Beautiful gave the Downtown Partnership $1,500 to fight cigarette trash. McGurk bought 12 waist-high receptacles and 1,000 pocket ashtrays for people to carry with them.
The butt count required for the grant was an eye opener.
Volunteers walked nose-to-the-ground across the 300 to 500 blocks of West Franklin Street and the 100 block of East Franklin.
The 440 West Franklin St. building, which houses UNC-Chapel Hill offices, had 608 sidewalk butts. Chapel Hill Tire and McDonald's, which has ash receptacles built into its outdoor trash cans, were close behind.
Only one business, Mediterranean Deli, had no butts.
"I don't see it as a big problem, really," owner Jamil Kadoura said. "But we attract a customer that's health-conscious because of our food."
Most smokers interviewed downtown would not give their names.
A university worker who flicked his butt to the ground said he knew he was part of the problem, but he hurried back inside when his pager or cell phone buzzed.
Ultimately, peer pressure will help get the butts off the street, said Smith, the education coordinator.
Confronting smokers? Not always the best approach, she said.
"I talked to a person. I said, 'Excuse me, but you dropped your cigarette in the street. She went, 'Oh,' and then she kicked it into the storm drain."
"I went, oh ... that backfired."
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