John Roska: Law clarifies that cigarette butts are litter

John Roska: Law clarifies that cigarette butts are litter

Q: Is there a new law that makes discarding cigarette butts illegal? Hasn't that always been littering?

A: The new law really just revises an old law. It adds the word "cigarettes" to the definition of litter to make it clear that discarding cigarette butts is littering, too.

The Illinois Litter Control Act starts off by broadly defining "litter" as "any discarded, used or unconsumed substance or waste." The newly revised law refines that definition by specifying that litter includes: "any garbage, trash, refuse, cigarettes, debris, rubbish, grass clippings or other lawn or garden waste."

The law says litter can also be any: "newspaper, magazines, glass, metal, plastic or paper containers or other packaging construction material, abandoned vehicle, motor vehicle parts, furniture, oil, carcass of a dead animal, any nauseous or offensive matter of any kind, (and) any object likely to injure any person or create a traffic hazard."

The law's laundry list of "litter" concludes with "potentially infectious medical waste, or anything else of an unsightly or unsanitary nature, which has been discarded, abandoned or otherwise disposed of improperly."

So, that's litter. What's "littering"?

The act says it's when you "dump, deposit, drop, throw, discard, (or) leave" litter on any public or private property. Doing basically the same things from a motor vehicle is littering, too.

The revision that makes it clear that discarded cigarettes are litter goes into effect on Jan. 1. Until then, it's arguable that they're not.

Littering is a Class B misdemeanor. That means: maximum $500 fine; six months in jail.

If you litter on a public highway, you can also "be required to maintain litter control for 30 days over a designated portion of that highway."

Some background:

The Litter Control Act went into effect in 1973, with a specific legislative determination that "litter is detrimental to the welfare of the people of this state."

The act is one of the many state laws that resulted from the "Keep America Beautiful" anti-litter campaign that began in 1953. In the early 1960s, Susan Spotless kicked that campaign into high gear with her classic "Every litter bit hurts," and "Don't be a litterbug."

Keep America Beautiful is now big against cigarette litter. A study it did in 2009 (funded by Philip Morris) found that cigarettes are the "most frequently littered item" (38 percent of all items), and that "57 percent of all cigarette butts were littered."

One problem with cigarettes as litter is that filters are not very biodegradable. They're cellulose acetate, and depending on whom you ask, take between several months and 15 years to degrade.

That pushed KAB to push laws aimed at cigarette litterbugs. Those efforts led to the tweak of our state law, to make it clear that discarded butts are litter, too.

Finally, you can litter on your own property, or with a property owner's permission, as long as it doesn't accumulate, or blow away, and "does not create a public health or safety hazard, a public nuisance, or a fire hazard."

John Roska is a lawyer with Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation. You can send your questions to The Law Q&A, 302 N. First St., Champaign, IL 61820. Questions may be edited for space.

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