October 24 2014

No Butts About It: Surfrider Hawaii Chapters Win Award for Tobacco-Free Beaches

by Stuart Coleman, Surfrider Foundation's Hawaii Regional Manager

Through the Rise Above Plastics campaign, Surfrider activists are working to reduce the amount of single-use plastics that enter the ocean every day.  Turning the tide on marine plastic pollution may seem like thankless work, but it’s a quixotic cause worth fighting for as we strive to protect our ocean and coastal playgrounds.

Our volunteers are not motivated by media attention and awards, but it still feels good when their good work is recognized and applauded.  At their annual conference in mid-October, the Coalition for a Tobacco-Free Hawaii (CTFH) gave the Surfrider Foundation’s Hawaii Chapters the Alaka’i Award for the 2014 Outstanding Organization of the Year.

The Coalition gave us the award in recognition of our Hold On To Your Butt campaign and our partnership with them to help create smoke-free beaches and parks in Hawaii.  For the past two years, the Hawaii Chapters have focused on eliminating the most littered item in the world—cigarette butts.  It seemed unwinnable at first, but by working with groups like CTFH, the Dept. of Health, Sustainable Coastlines and other groups, we began a long and challenging journey to create tobacco-free beaches first on Oahu and then on Maui.

The first challenge was making people aware of the fact that cigarette butts are indeed plastic, composed of cellulose acetate and many other toxic chemicals.  The next challenge was educating the public about the extent of the problem, which includes both environmental and health consequences.  Surfrider focused on the former, and the Coalition targeted the latter.

According to the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, an estimated 1.69 billion pounds of butts wind up as litter worldwide per year.   Surfrider’s Hawaii Chapters take part in the Ocean Conservancy's annual International Coastal Cleanup Day, whose reports annual reports state that "cigarette butts have been the single most recovered item since collections began." This represents 35 percent of the total debris collected.

To illustrate the extent of the problem, the Oahu Chapter held a beach cleanup at Kaka’ako Park.  (The Chapter also helped preserve this state land from repeated attempts to build luxury, high-rise condo towers in the same area.)  Within two hours, volunteers helped collect more than 11,500 butts!  We later used this information and our stats from other cleanups in our testimonies for a bill to ban tobacco products.  After many hearings, the bill passed in 2013.

Inspired by the Oahu bill’s passage, the Maui Chapter set up an island-wide beach cleanup and worked with the Maui District Student Council Organization to get students involved in both the cleanup and the legislativeprocess.  Mayor Arakawa issued a proclamation setting up “Butts Off the Beaches Day,” and volunteers collected more than 14,500 cigarette butts in two hours.  The students then took the butts and a petition to the County Council members and asked them to pass legislation banning tobacco products from the beaches and parks.  The well-run campaign gained momentum, and the bill passed on Earth Day in 2014!

Once the legislation was enacted, we worked with the Coalition, organizations like BEACH and the Parks Dept. to create PSA’s to promote awareness of the new laws.  We anticipated some negative feedback, especially from smokers, but the Oahu and Maui Chapters received almost no complaints whatsoever.  This is probably because most people realize that our beaches are special places and can no longer be treated as public ashtrays.

With the successful bans on the Big Island, Oahu and Maui, Surfrider’s Hawaii Chapters are now working on a statewide bill that will create tobacco-free beaches and parks on all of the Islands.  Working with strong community partners like the Coalition for a Tobacco-Free Hawaii, I am confident we will pass the bill at some point. 

To add some fun to the campaign, we want to engage in a friendly competition with Surfrider’s Oregon Chapters to become the first state in the nation to eliminate cigarette butts from our beaches! But no matter who passes the first bill, we are all winners when our beaches and coastlines are cleaner and healthier. 

So let’s keep fighting to turn back the tide on single-use plastics and marine pollution! Progress may seem slow at times, but we are part of an extended network of activists whose work onshore are creating a sea change in Hawaii, across the country and around the world.