If you’ve ever wandered onto JBR beach next to the Hilton Dubai Jumeirah, you probably found it almost impossible to walk on the sand without standing on a cigarette butt. Mounds of them cover the beach like a toxic carpet, and holidaymakers and residents walk on them, lie on them and add to them every day.
Researchers say that cigarette butts are toxic waste. A tiny amount of tobacco can turn a litre of water brown and supposedly has enough toxins to kill 50 per cent of the fish swimming in it, according to researchers from San Diego State University. It’s also believed that more than 4 trillion cigarette butts make their way into our precious environment every year.
We’re not blaming the smokers, of course – we’re blaming the litterers. ‘I’m a smoker, and I think it’s revolting,’ says Dubai resident Nancy Rahman, from Turkey. ‘It’s disgusting: there are mountains of them. We all have a responsibility to take them with us.’ Nancy is trying to do something about it, and is one of 60 volunteers that perform a beach clean-up once a month with non-profit group Operation Ozone. On their last visit, volunteers picked up 45,000 cigarette butts in just one hour – each of which could have continued to cause plenty of environmental damage. Contrary to popular belief, cigarette butts do not decompose easily. ‘They’re not just cotton, and they’re not entirely biodegradable, explains Nancy. ‘Experts claim they take up to 12 years to biodegrade.’
The butts are partly made of plastic and can severely damage the country’s shorelines and marine life – they could even be affecting the food chain. ‘The filters trap all the worst stuff in a cigarette,’ says Nancy. ‘These end up in the sea and are swallowed by fish who may be carrying eggs, which become fish, which may end up on our plate. As a smoker you have a choice to smoke, but these animals have no choice in getting poisoned by our toxins.’
Volunteer projects such as Operation Ozone aim to spread awareness about this problem. The beach clean is also attracting attention from companies such as Wire Storm IT, which has previously sponsored the drive to help clean UAE beaches.
While there are still thousands of butts to gather, ‘it’s better to have 800,000 butts [on the beach] than a million’, says Nancy, who reveals she felt a little queasy when she saw what the volunteers had collected. ‘I was grossed out. Looking at that many old cigarette filters makes you feel pretty disgusting.’
‘The clean-up makes a small token of difference,’ explains Dubai resident Niccolo Castellano (below right), originally from the UK. He believes they have a long way to go, but adds that the monthly event is ‘a great way to spread the message’.
On the day, teams compete against each other to see who can collect the most cigarette butts. ‘There’s a good sense of teamwork, with some healthy competition thrown in – it’s great fun,’ says Niccolo. ‘You meet people and you get to save some fish at the same time.’
If thousands of people got involved in Operation Ozone by giving up one hour a month, the UAE’s beaches could be almost spotless. Yet while everyone can get involved in this project on a local level, Niccolo believes the bigger picture is a much harder task. ‘People will have to eventually kick the habit,’ he explains. ‘There needs to be further awareness about the health effects of smoking and people leading by example. In poorer communities, it’s worked really well when people have been paid to do quit their addictions. Perhaps this is the way to go.’
Join Operation Ozone on Saturday 19 at 7.30am on JBR beach, and the every third week of the month thereafter. Sign up in advance at www.volunteerindubai.com
Cigarettes: the facts
• What looks like cotton in the cigarette filter is actually cellulose acetate, a type of plastic that traps nicotine, cadmium, lead, arsenic and other hazardous toxins.
• When discarded filters reach the sea, these chemicals soon leach into the water.
• Animals often mistake them for food and eat them, creating problems in the digestive tracts of birds, marine life and certain fish.