By Karen Klinger
If cleanliness is indeed next to Godliness, then the volunteers who turned out on sunny day April 9 to clean up portions of Porter Square had every right to feel virtuous. Up and down both sides of Massachusetts Avenue, including the MBTA park and plaza, they removed the detritus of urban life carelessly cast aside, from fast food containers and newspapers to plastic shopping bags to--worst job of all--cigarette butts that had to be painstakingly picked up one by one.
It was, to coin a phrase, dirty work but someone had to do it. The question, of course, is why? What is it in the human psyche that makes some people think its OK to toss aside their cigarette butts in public spaces when, presumably, they would never do that on their own property? Is it really that hard to carry a used coffee cup or Metro paper a few yards to a trash bin? Who do the litterers think cleans up what they've left behind? And at what cost to the environment and the taxpayers?
First, kudos to the heroes of this story. About four dozen people drawn from the Porter Square Neighbors Association, the Ward 10 Democratic Committee, Lesley University and St. James's Episcopal Church (plus some walk-ins) devoted a fine weekend spring morning to cleaning up not just litter but the grit and sand left behind by a brutal winter on a stretch of Mass Ave from Lesley's University Hall to the south to the Cambridge fire house to the north. Some of the most difficult work included picking up broken glass that had been accumulating for years in the T park (to see an earlier story about the long neglected park, go to: http://www.cctvcambridge.org/MBTA_Park_Porter_Square). The MBTA had earlier made a start by partially cleaning up the park, but there was still much to be done.
Contributing to the effort were two venerable Porter Square business establishments. Tags Hardware donated brooms, paper bags and cotton gloves (and owners Simon Shapiro and Mardi Moran also lent a hand) while Christopher's restaurant provided food and drinks for the volunteers afterwards. The city of Cambridge helped out by providing rubber gloves and heavy duty plastic garbage bags
All to the good. But just how long could the square stay spiffed up? Sadly, it took only 24 hours for some of the work of the volunteers to be undone., By the next day, there was already litter blowing around the T park and the trash barrels were full to overflowing (memo to the MBTA: now that it's warmer and the park gets more use, the barrels probably need to be emptied more often). And chunks of bread spread around meant that the "pigeon lady," as locals call her, had been back with food for her flock (it's no wonder the Cambridge police call it the "pigeon park").
Nevertheless, the area still looked better than it had before the cleanup. But with the season upon us when people will be out and about more, it's a good time to think about how the costs of improperly disposing of something as small as a food wrapper or a cigarette butt can add up. Lisa Peterson, Cambridge's public works director, has said that while the city conducts public awareness programs, it hasn't totaled up the costs of cleaning up such litter. But one city that has, San Francisco, came up with some eye-popping statistics when it conducted a "litter audit" in 2008.
The City by the Bay found that cigarette butts constituted the single greatest source of litter, accounting for nearly one-quarter of all the trash collected each year in public spaces. It cost nearly $11 million annually to clean them up from parks, sidewalks and drainpipes. The second largest source of litter? Items from takeout food places, including cups, napkins, wrappers and straws.
To partially offset the cost of cleaning all of this up, San Francisco has slapped a 20-cent user fee (a.k.a. a tax) on each pack of cigarettes sold in the city and officials have mulled imposing a fast food tax as well.
The nonprofit group Keep America Beautiful, which has compiled statistics on cleanup efforts nationwide, estimates that cigarette butts alone account for up to half of the litter on urban streets and sidewalks and about a third of the total amount of litter in the United States. It says that out of the 370 billion or so cigarettes smoked in the U.S. annually, about 135 million pounds of butts are left behind in the environment. The Massachusetts Bay Estuary Association puts the figure higher, at 176 million pounds, or enough cigarette butts to fill Fenway Park 32 times.
Thomas Novotny, a professor of environmental health at San Diego State University, says that while many people regard cigarette butts as biodegradable, that's simply not true. In fact, they break down very slowly over the course of more than a decade. And what's in a cigarette butt? According to Novotny, a typical butt contains 600 substances including--in addition to nicotine--arsenic, mercury, lead, chloride, the pesticide benzene and acetone.
How toxic is this chemical stew? Novotny says tests have shown that one cigarette butt placed in a liter of water with minnows has enough poison to kill half of them within 96 hours.
That's just one single butt.
Think about it.
Ruth Ryals, vice president of the Porter Square Neighbors Association (PSNA), spearheaded the organizing of "Clean Up Porter Square" day. The PSNA will host MBTA Transit Police Lieutenant Commander Robert Lenehan, who was instrumental in getting the T initially to clean up the Porter Square park, as well as Cambridge Police Officer Brian Pugliares at its monthly meeting April 21 from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the North Cambridge Senior Center, 2050 Mass Ave. Also attending will be William McClellan, the T's deputy director of heavy rail for the Red Line. In addition, there will be a discussion about the clean up and other neighborhood issues. All residents and business owners are invited to attend.