Smoking Garbage

New study tracks tobacco waste at Bay Area schools

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Waste from e-cigarette products can contain plastics, nicotine, heavy metals, other chemical toxins and hazardous lithium-ion batteries. Credit: Nery Zarate

Garbology, the study of modern refuse, trash and the receptacles used to store it, became an academic pursuit in the 1970s due to the pioneering work of Dr. William Rathje.

A Harvard-educated anthropologist by training, Dr. Rathje reportedly believed that a thorough study of the contents of a household trash can could reveal more than a lengthy interview with the humans filing the receptacle each week.

Rathje might have been proud of two UCSF researchers who spent much of last year scouring 12 Bay Area high schools for solid evidence about what students are smoking these days and, more important in this case, the amount of garbage strewn around their schools as a result.

The authors of the study, Dr. Jeremiah Mock and Dr. Yogi H. Hendlin, chose public high schools in Marin, San Francisco, Alameda and Contra Costa counties, and then listed all the butts and bits they found in categories.

“At each school, researchers systematically scanned the student parking lots and exterior school perimeter areas once during July 2018–April 2019 to collect all e-cigarette product waste, combustible tobacco product waste and cannabis product waste found on the ground,” the study states.

While most researchers studying teenagers’ smoking habits rely on questionnaires to gather information about trends, this study focused on a different problem: The toxic trash that results from the use of old-school and electronic smoking devices.

They study was published the story in October in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, a publication of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention publication.

E-cigarettes and other electronic smoking implements have garnered lots of negative attention this year largely due to their growing popularity among teenagers, a better understanding of the health problems related to them and the practice some companies have of actively marketing flavored products to teenagers.

Between 2017 and 2018, the portion of high school students using e-cigarettes nearly doubled from 11.7 to 20.8 percent of the total school population, according to a study by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Along with negative health effects, the new smoking devices seem to have ushered in a new era of garbage. While e-cigarette cartridges and other resultant waste may not pose as much fire risk as leftover cigarette butts, they do cause problems as garbage.

After all, once a cartridge is empty or a battery is dead, an e-cigarette is, essentially, e-waste.

“Waste from e-cigarette products can contain plastics, nicotine, heavy metals, other chemical toxins and hazardous lithium-ion batteries,” the study notes.

In an interview with the Pacific Sun, Mock cautioned against reading too much into the study’s data concerning the smoking habits of teens. While the data may show some information about the brands teenagers prefer, the researchers focused on directly tracking the amount of trash that enters the environment due to teen smoking.

For instance, a garbology study cannot capture the smokers who disposed of their butts properly nor, in the case of one wealthy high school the researchers studied, smokers who janitors were assisted with waste clean-up by janitors.

Among their findings, the pair of scientists discovered that middle- and upper-income students appear to have developed a taste for electronic smoking devices. Other students still prefer conventional cigarettes, while low-income students prefer cigarillos, according to the study.

All told, researchers found 893 pieces of trash across 12 campuses. Twenty percent (172) were related to Juul devices, about 10 percent were from cigarillos (87) and nearly 70 percent (620) were tied to conventional cigarettes. A measly 14 pieces of trash were related to marijuana products, likely because of the challenges of functioning at school while high.

While the Juul products were a minority, they were more likely to be found in middle- and upper-income schools. According to the study, the vast majority of students using Juul products (99 percent) opted for flavored products rather than old-school, tobacco-flavored pods.

While it’s not clear which of the public schools in the study are located in Marin County—the names aren’t listed in the study—the county has long been a leader in attempting to discourage tobacco use.

In its 2019 State of Tobacco Control report, the American Lung Association awarded Marin County and many of its cities high grades for their efforts to cut down on public smoking.

The high marks are due to regulatory pushes by local officials, spurred on by a group of advocates, the Smoke-Free Marin Coalition.

Bob Curry, who manages Marin County’s Tobacco Control Program, says Mock, the co-author of the study, has brought attention to the issue of tobacco product waste through decades of activism in Marin County and, more recently, other countries.

While many think of cigarettes as mainly a health problem, Mock’s work has brought attention to the problem of cigarettes as poisonous litter.

The scale of the problem is mind-numbing. Humans smoked 5.6 trillion cigarettes in 2002 alone, according to the American Cancer Society. The same group expects humans to smoke 9 trillion cigarettes in 2025.

“It’s something people just don’t think about,” Curry told the Pacific Sun.

For several decades Marin County activists have pushed lawmakers to discourage smoking. Recently, the county and its cities targeted vape products by instituting bans on the sale of flavored tobacco products.

The county’s efforts largely combine education and legislation, like the ban on flavored tobacco, Curry said.

To date, almost every city in Marin County has passed bans on flavored tobacco products, including e-cigarette cartridges and menthol cigarettes. Curry expects Mill Valley, the straggler, to vote on the issue within the next few months.

While reducing teen smoking overall would likely help reduce the amount of waste, other specific approaches may be required, Curry says. The UCSF researchers suggest that teachers and students try garbology for themselves.

“Schools can engage students in garbology projects to identify existing and new use of [tobacco] products and to raise awareness about their hazardous health and environmental impacts,” the study concludes.

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