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Living in the 21st century can be overwhelming.

Our world faces challenging issues. What can the average person possibly do about centuries-long conflicts in the Middle East? The break-up of the European Union might throw our entire economic system into chaos. What can an individual possibly do?

Travel to any American city. There are homeless people on the street. Sometimes, a person just feels powerless.

However, there are ways each and every one of us can have a positive impact on the world around us.

We all have friends who are smokers. We have all seen them crush cigarette butts out on the ground, or worse yet, carelessly flick them from the car window.

It doesn’t seem like a big deal. Cigarette butts are tiny.

In reality, it is a huge deal. Cigarette smokers, and people who know smokers, need to be educated. Some 5.5 trillion cigarettes are consumed each year. It’s estimated that one trillion of those butts are tossed into the environment each year.

Keep America Beautiful reports that butts make up nearly one-third of discarded items each year. That’s measured by the number of discarded items, not volume.

Think about it. When is the last time you’ve been to a public place and haven’t seen a cigarette butt? If you’re bank fishing, there is a pretty good likelihood you’ll see a butt floating near shore. They appear in playgrounds, parking lots and along hiking trails.

Ocean Conservancy reports cigarette butts are the most common litter found on fresh and salt-water beaches in America.

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If you’re thinking cigarette butts are small and go away quickly … well, you’re wrong. Quite wrong.

Cigarette butts are made of a material called cellulose acetate. It’s not indestructible, but it is a cockroach of chemical compounds. You can’t get rid of the stuff.

Best-case scenario, that cigarette butt someone flicks out the window will decompose in 18 months. Worst-case scenario, it might still be around in 10 years.

That is an incredible thought — that momentary, reflexive, thoughtless action of flicking a butt out the window will still be having harmful effects on the environment 10 years from now.

And, it’s not just the issue of litter.

Scientists aren’t sure of the deleterious effects of cigarette butts in the environment.

A Florida photographer recently photographed a black skimmer feeding a cigarette butt to a chick. Currently, there haven’t been enough studies to determine the effects on wild birds, but veterinarians know that consequences are dire for pet birds who consume cigarette butts.

Because of their body mass, the small critters are easily poisoned from the toxins found in cigarette butts.

Some studies in the United Kingdom have suggested cigarette butts can restrict grass germination rates and shoot length of the plants. The World Health Organization says there are 7,000 toxins in tobacco waste, toxins that are accumulating in our soil and waters.

It may not seem like a big deal, but progress begins with each cigarette butt disposed of properly. If you are a smoker, think twice before you flick that butt out of the window. If you know smokers, encourage them to be mindful of the environmental damage they’re causing.

This is a problem we, each of us, can help fix.

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LES WINKELER is the outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at les.winkeler@thesouthern.com, or call 618-351-5088 / On Twitter @LesWinkeler.

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