It only takes one butt

08.01.13 It Only Takes One Butt

It only takes one butt

With heat waves now upon us in the middle of the bushfire season, and with 203 fires in Australia right now (Real-time Australian Bushfire Map) the Keep Australia Beautiful Rural Highways 2011/2012 report, as part of the National Litter Index, indicates that nationally, cigarette butts remain the most frequently littered items in 2011/2012, with 7.5 cigarette butts per 1,000m2 which is up from 6.7 butts in the previous year. This sends a concerning message indicating that Australian motorists are not doing the right thing with their butts.

The connection between cigarette butts and roadside fires was previously only supported by circumstantial evidence, until 2004 when the Don’t be a fire bug campaign announced by Fire and Rescue NSW responded to a report entitled Can cigarettes butts start (Bush)fires? This study by Jennifer Dainer, a student at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), with help from the NSW Fire Brigade and CSIRO provided solid proof that cigarettes butts thrown carelessly from cars did indeed start roadside fires. Combine a lit cigarette thrown onto the road with a passing car fanning the butt into dry roadside grass and potential disaster may ensue.

On a recent commute while riding his motorcycle, Peter McLean, National Chief Executive Officer of Keep Australia Beautiful got butted in the face with a lit cigarette discarded from the car in front of him. “This sort of behaviour from Australian motorists is shocking and unacceptable. It’s one thing to be hit in the visor by an absent minded driver, but more importantly we have also seen devastating bushfires started by someone flicking a lit cigarette butt out of their car window, so the message we hope will sink in is that it is never okay to litter!”

Mr McLean went on to say that in almost every state, throwing a lit cigarette attracts a much higher fine. “Whether motorists are aware of it or not, their littered cigarette can start a fire. This is reckless act which can attract higher fines due to the litter being a hazard. Bushfires can kill people, so it’s about time people start taking their littering habits seriously,” McLean said.

In NSW you can be fined $375 for aggravated littering which threatens public safety or the environment, such as depositing lit cigarette butts during fire seasons. It’s a $200 fine in WA, and $500 if it’s a public risk, $60 in the ACT, $282 in Victoria, and $240 in Tasmania. According to, 50% of bushfires are deliberately lit. This is a painful statistic, since each year the willful and deliberate lighting of fires causes significant damage to people, property, flora and fauna.

The Weather Channel have forecasted an increase in bushfires, temperature, and heatwaves. They indicate the potential for grass fires is dependent on the previous severe weather seasons rainfall, and report the excessive rain from two consecutive La Niña years has now cleared and warm and dry weather is returning.

“It will be the hottest summer in at least three years for much of the country,” says Tom Saunders, Senior Meteorologist at The Weather Channel.

Dick Whitaker, Chief Meteorologist at The Weather Channel says, “There is heightened risk of bushfires this season for most of the country compared to the 2010/11 and 2011/12 seasons

“Grassland areas of central Western AustraliaSouth Australia, inland New South Wales and southern inland Queensland are most at risk, thanks to the heavy rainfall of the past two La Niña years which has resulted in heavy vegetation growth,” he continues.

“South-east Australia’s fire potential is also substantially higher. While we currently have saturated soil and high fuel moisture in forest regions of south-east Queensland, eastern New South Wales, VictoriaTasmania and South Australia, these areas can dry out rapidly in only a two to three week period given suitable conditions.”

Brian McKinlay, President of the NSW Rural Fire Service Association and a volunteer firefighter for more than 50 years advises, “The rain experienced across many parts of New South Wales earlier in 2012 was welcome – but it’s now brought an unwelcome threat. This rain has lead to increased grass growth across many areas and as this grass has now dried out, it’s created an increased risk of grass fires.

“Grass fires can be especially dangerous because they can start quickly and spread rapidly, catching people off-guard. They can be very hot and produce large amounts of heat which can kill anyone caught out in the open.

“When it comes to disposing of your cigarette butts, there is no ‘buts’ about it, make sure you extinguish them completely and dispose of them properly in rubbish bins.”

84 rural highway sites were selected and scoped for the National Litter Index, which are classified in the report as major country roads with road markings and have one lane of traffic only in each direction. Eight of these sites are selected for each of South Australia, the Northern Territory and Tasmania, and 15 sites was selected for each of New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria and Western Australia.

Cigarette butts remain Australia’s number one littered item across all sites by count – accounting for 50% of all littered items.

Parramatta Fire Station Officer Scott said “As well as the environmental cost associated with littering, there is also the potential for fires from dropped cigarette butts, particularly during bushfire season,” he says. “A careless act by one person may have dire consequences for others, including the firefighters who risk their lives at fires.”

“As most of litter is from cigarette butts, it’s no surprise that every year the Fire Brigades are called to hundreds of roadside fires believed to be caused by discarded butts,” Peter McLean said.

Although wetter fuel loads (the amount of combustible material in a given area) could ignite with the application of wind, a National Bushfire Fuel Classification System is being created by the Australian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council which will help to determine the types of fires as well as fire intensity.

What can you do?

If you are a smoker, when driving always take a personal ashtray with you.  Not disposing of butts responsibly can cause fires, contaminate soil, end up in our waterways, and harm animals when ingested. If you see someone littering their butt, you can report them on the Keep Australia Beautiful webpage

Butt what about your state?





The Keep Australia Beautiful National Litter Index is Australia’s only national, annual, quantitative measure of what litter occurs where and in what volume. Over 950 sites are visited twice per year to create an annual report on litter in each State and Territory that can be compared against the national average. The National Littler Index Rural Highways 2011/2012 is conducted by McGregor Tan Research.

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