You wouldn’t throw a candy wrapper on the ground, out of a car window, or into the ocean, so why are cigarette butts tossed with such indifference?
Just one year ago, I was not aware that cigarette filters were made from plastic; it takes these butts just as long to biodegrade as any other plastic — NEVER! Three quarters of smokers report habitually flicking their cigarettes. Is flicking still really deemed as “cool”? Besides the visual atrociousness of littered cigarette butts, 80% of discarded filters make their way into our water systems — streams, rivers, and gutters that lead directly to the ocean. There are 5.6 TRILLION cigarette butts littered each year around the world, which makes them the most littered item on Earth. These toxic cancer sticks carry more than 7,000 chemicals, such as lead, arsenic, nicotine, and formaldehyde, which leach into the environment, effectively and collectively contaminating water, poisoning fish, and killing other animals. Just ONE cigarette butt can have adverse effects on marine life: “SDSU public health researcher Richard Gersberg… found that the chemicals from just one filtered cigarette butt had the ability to kill fish living in a one-liter bucket of water… about half of the fish were killed with a very low concentration of cigarette butts”.
The surf company Vissla and the non-profit environmental organization Surfrider Foundation hold a contest each year that prompts individuals to create a functional surfcraft built from upcycled materials. Upcycled materials are discarded objects that are creatively transformed and repurposed into something new; essentially, from trash to treasure. In 2016, I filmed Taylor Lane’s entry into the “Creators and Innovators Upcycle Contest”. We were selected as finalists in the contest, and although we did not receive an award in 2016, we left the event markedly inspired, already brainstorming ideas for the 2017 contest.
What type of upcycled trash could make for the most poignant and powerful creation? What kind of waste could we incorporate that would make an unparalleled statement about littering, inextricably connected to coastal health, while capturing the hearts and minds of surfers, environmentalists, and everyday citizens?
The answer: Cigarette Butts.
The most littered item in the world, and the most collected trash item from beach cleanups internationally. I proposed to Taylor that for the 2017 contest, we should create a surfboard made from used cigarette filters, all of which were sourced from the beach.
Taylor is an Industrial Designer by trade, a surfer by passion; he has shaped only a handful of surfboards, but is unquestionably talented with his hands. He has an enormous amount of ambition, dedication, and skill at creating just about anything. A surfboard made out of cigarette butts... doesn't make much sense. But it couldn’t be impossible, could it? I convinced him of the strength of this idea as an environmentally minded artistic statement; why are these butts being littered, what effect do they have on the environment, and what can we do about it? How can humans change their habits to find a more sustainable balance with the natural world?
As surfers, littered items such as cigarette butts have harmful effects on the place we love and yearn to protect and keep clean. Discarded cigarette butts and other plastics are completely contrary to the surf and beach culture we are trying to promote. The surfboard would function as a catalyst for more questions and conversations on these issues and, hopefully, as an impetus for increased awareness and a search for solutions. It was more than a creation for the contest; it could operate as a political, environmental, and social piece. And we could also make an environmental surf documentary about the surfboard and all the issues it addresses. Taylor could not agree more; now how could we actually create a surfboard made from cigarette butts?
Taylor began his research on the plausibility of the creation; he talked with a few professional shapers in Santa Cruz, and created prototypes to figure out the details of production. He soon realized that it would indeed be possible to create a functional surfboard from cigarette butts; we earnestly hoped it would actually float and surf. The process began in July 2017; we attended beach clean ups held by Surfrider Foundation and Save Our Shores, in San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Cruz counties. We filmed these events, spoke with volunteers, and collected innumerous cigarette butts. We quickly noticed flicking patterns — the filters were often discarded on beach walkways, in parking lots, and around fire pits. Volunteers had plenty of ideas on how to address the issue; more garbage cans, bigger fines for flicking butts, more education programs, personal and portable butt tins, biodegradable filters.
Although some ideas weren’t perfect, people were unquestionably affected by the amount of butts they collected, and were eager to share potential solutions to the issue. What struck me most was the amount of filters flicked and forgotten within a couple feet of a garbage can or cigarette disposal receptacle! WHY? It made no sense, and it infuriated me. After a few weekends attending beach clean ups, we had collected over 10,000 cigarette butts. Marlboros, Camels, Kools, American Spirits, and even a few marijuana roaches as well.
After countless hours of sifting through the butts and removing the tobacco, Taylor began by building a wooden frame with a center stringer and cross sections. He mixed the cigarette butts with glue, and mashed together the old filters into a solid bottom layer. For a middle layer, he used discarded styrofoam coolers from fish markets, in order to reduce weight and add buoyancy in the core. A top layer of butts were pounded into place, and EPS rail cut-offs from local surfboard shapers were used around the perimeter of the board. Taylor even put a layer of cigarette filters in the fins, which were made from leftover fiberglass scraps from local surfboard glassers. He used Entropy Resins (soybean based) to glass and seal the surfboard, which is a much more sustainable and less toxic material than traditional resin. The Cigarette Surfboard, after months of labor and learning, had come to fruition. Seventeen pounds of butts.
The surfboard immediately filled with water the first time Taylor attempted surfing it; no waves were caught, and the board could not be deemed “functional”. This trial and error setback was distressing, but Taylor could not be stopped. He fixed the surfboard over the next few weeks, and successfully surfed it! We made a couple short videos to enter into the contest, and were selected as finalists. At the finalists event on October 20th, "The Roach Tail" won first place.
But the aftermath of the contest victory is becoming the real story. News of the surfboard has gone completely viral, captivating the imaginations of people around the world and bringing attention to the global problem of tobacco waste in coastal areas, as well as the grander issue of ocean pollution.
Taylor and I plan to create an environmental surf documentary showcasing our journey with "The Roach Tail" — focusing on the harmful effects of human-caused ocean pollution and what can be done to raise awareness and change behaviors, while linking the historical significance that surfing and surfers have with respect for the ocean. We’ll be working with scientists, activists, public health employees, government agencies and nonprofits to make for a captivating and culturally relevant film. Along the way, we will also connect with internationally acclaimed surfers, with three different Cigarette Surfboard models, taking the boards to various coastal regions around the world and communicating with local populations about the effects of ocean pollution, and discussing the different ways of dealing with it.
But with such ambition comes a large amount of work and significant financial cost; that is why we need your help to make this documentary a reality. Your contribution will go towards helping these two talented and creative individuals make an impactful environmental surf documentary to raise awareness and inspire individuals, organizations, and governments to take action regarding the pollution of our oceans. We plan to donate half of any profits from the film to organizations that work to protect and preserve marine and coastal environments. Thank you infinitely for your time and your contribution!
The Cigarette Surfboard was recently featured in publications such as Stab Magazine, the New York Times, the San Jose Mercury News, Lonely Planet, and The Inertia. It has also appeared on CBS, NBC, ABC, NPR's Morning Edition, and many other international media outlets. Follow these links to read/watch more!
View the repair process and surfers riding the board here!
Risks and challenges
The biggest challenge we will quite possibly face is accidentally breaking the surfboards. It takes a lot of time to repair them, and even more time to create entirely new ones. This could set us back in production, so we are being flexible and reasonable with our release date of the film. We will hopefully finish by the end of the summer of 2018, but it is possible it could be pushed back to the winter of 2018/2019, to get the boards filmed in the best possible waves. Shipping the surfboards overseas is a risk as well, and we will need to pack and protect them with caution.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
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