As Sitka heads toward a record cruise season, with over half-a-million visitors, some obvious things are up — like sales tax revenue and traffic.
But some less obvious metrics are on the rise, too. Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium health educator Amanda Roberts saw one change in particular coming as far back as 2018, when Alaska passed its smoke-free workplace law.
“I went and engaged with these businesses that were going to be going smoke-free, and talked to concerns: What were some worries that were coming down the line with this change, which was going to be a big change for the community?” said Roberts. “And one of the things that was expressed was concerns of increased cigarette butt litter.”
Roberts decided to be proactive over concerns about cigarette butts, and organized a monthly cleanup focused on downtown Sitka. Since 2018, what started as a community service has become a legitimate scientific study.
Roberts says the record cruise season correlates to a staggering increase in cigarette litter.
“And it’s prevalent, I just want to say,” Roberts said. “We can have, within an hour-and-a-half to two-hour span,1 over 2,000 cigarette butts. We count every single cigarette butt. We track this data.”
Roberts is a former smoker, about to celebrate her fourteenth anniversary since quitting. And while she’s professionally motivated to help others quit for the sake of their good health, Roberts is continuing the butt cleanup for the sake of everyone else.
“Cigarette butts are the number-one littered item in the world,” Roberts said. “And they are not biodegradable. They are extremely toxic for the environment and anything that picks them up or touches them. So we definitely don’t use our hands. But there are concerns about having these things littered on the ground, and in the waterways in the environment.”
The transect Robert’s team follows on its cleanup begins at Sitka’s community playground, follows the Seawalk along the Crescent Harbor park strip, and then moves into downtown which, on busy days, is made into a traffic-free pedestrian mall. Roberts hopes that one day Sitka would consider a policy to make the park and playground areas tobacco-free. She believes it would significantly help the effort to keep kids from taking up smoking.
“One thing we’re super-focused on in the work that I do is reducing youth initiation to these products,” she said, “and I think the more we create those environments, the more we’re creating the kind of that norm where tobacco use is not even visible.”
And fewer smokers, Roberts believes, is the key to reducing cigarette litter. Roberts says any Alaskan resident is eligible to enroll in a free cessation program, the Alaska Quit Line, which is still available at its phone number 1-800-QUIT-NOW, or online at alaskaquitline.com.