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When a tanker runs aground or a pipeline spills, the mainstream media still attempts to cover the story. But other kinds of pollution have a less TV-friendly narrative because they are continuous ongoing issues. Legacy, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing the health impact of smoking, commissioned Toxic Forest from artist Chris Jordan to help visualize one such problem.
Every 15 seconds, 139,000 cigarettes are smoked and discarded in the United States, many of them improperly. “They are the most discarded item on beaches, waterways and roadways,” Sarah Shank, a Senior Communications Manager at Legacy told an assembled audience while presenting the artwork at this year’s SXSW Eco conference in Austin, Texas.
Legacy initially focused on the prevention of childhood smoking and helping smokers give up their addictions. But recently, the organization added a new goal — finding a solution for the problem of cigarette waste. 360 billion cigarettes are smoked every year. and in one survey, three quarters of smokers admitted to disposing of cigarette butts on the ground or out a car window. Despite popular belief to the contrary, discarded cigarette butts do not biodegrade. They take years to break down and, when they finally do, merely break apart into smaller pieces of plastic. Anyone who has ever participated in a cleanup effort on a road, beach, or anywhere else will vividly remember picking up butt after butt — or the plasticy fluff they turn into with time. In 2010, the Ocean Conservancy reported collecting over a million butts in their annual cleanup efforts, over 31% of the total trash collected.
At a distance, Toxic Forest appears to be an attractive but unremarkable woodland scene. As the viewer approaches, it slowly resolves into a strange pattern of whites and darks, flecks of color mingling. At last, up close, one can see that this collage isn’t just meant to symbolize waste but actually constructed out of waste. Forest is literally made from 139,000 photographs of individual cigarette butts, collected as garbage in Austin and Seattle. Jordan then created the cunning photo collage that drew many visitors outside SXSW Eco’s trade show throughout the event.
Jordan is known for this technique of using photocollage to symbolize American consumerism and wastefulness. Most of his work is grouped into series like Running the Numbers, which mixes garbage with high finance and other images of the American Way. His Midway series depicts the death of baby albatrosses that are fed plastic by their mothers, and an accompanying film launches soon. Toxic Forest fits perfectly into this oeuvre. Gazing upon Toxic Forest, I imagined those moments in my life when I’d hiked into a wooded lot or forested state park and found myself in some place of almost intolerable natural beauty — only to have my reverie come crashing down upon the discovery of a crumpled beer can and a pile of discarded cigarette butts. More seriously, both animals and human infants have been known to consume butts with neurotoxic effects.
Legacy recently launched a scholarly journal, Tobacco Control, to bring scientific research to the issue of cigarette butts. It’s full of research papers with titles like “Toxicity of cigarette butts, and their chemical components, to marine and freshwater fish.” Since this is crucial but not especially approachable work for the average cigarette consumer, they’ve also partnered with the Leave No Trace Center to create a series of public service announcements. You can view one of them below.
Legacy doesn’t believe in shaming or attacking smokers, but it does want them to know that cigarette butts have serious consequences when disposed of improperly. “My dad’s a huge smoker, ” Sarah Shank said at the presentation, “and when he learned about this issue of cigarette butts and how bad they are he now takes all his butts and puts them in coffee cans and stores them in our basement … he knows they are toxic and they don’t go away.”
For now, the best we can all do is gently encourage the smokers in our lives to take a similar, hands-on approach. Get more information at rethinkbutts.org.
Photo of Toxic Forest provided by Legacy, used with permission. Close up detail photographed by Kit O’Connell and released under a Creative Commons license.