The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Keep your butts out of the Tennessee River

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Cigarette butt recycling bin 4

Dollywood joins Tennessee Aquarium effort to limit the introduction of cigarette butts to our shared waterways.

“As all humans need access to clean water, it’s an incredibly important treasure to protect.” — Dr. Anna George, Tennessee Aquarium vice president of conservation science and education.

Cigarette butts are everywhere, and are perhaps so familiar they go unnoticed by the millions of people who pass them on our streets and roads.

Not only are they unsightly, they contaminate our water resources — the puddles after a sudden rainstorm, the streams that flow through our landscapes, and the stormwater drains that ultimately lead to the Tennessee River. The butts quickly break down, polluting water with “tiny plastic fibers and a devil’s cocktail of chemical compounds,” according to the Tennessee Aquarium.

The Chattanooga aquarium has partnered with Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful, an affiliate of Keep America Beautiful, to stem the rising tide of cigarette butts in our waterways.

Dollywood has also embraced the effort, making it the first theme park in the world to recycle all properly disposed cigarette butts.

“One cigarette filter can contain enough toxins to kill aquatic life within two gallons of surrounding water,” said Kathleen Gibi, executive director of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful.

The action fits the mission of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful, which is to inspire the public to take action to protect and preserve the Tennessee River and its tributaries across a seven-state region encompassing Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Kentucky.

Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful and the Tennessee Aquarium have partnered to install cigarette-butt recycling receptacles on the aquarium’s campus. They placed eight of these bins in heavily traveled locations.

“Everybody contributes to the river, whether positively or negatively, so finding stakeholders and inspiring them to take action is what will make the biggest impact,” Gibi said. She also emphasized the importance of the Tennessee Aquarium’s educational programs in protecting water quality.

The aquarium’s eight cigarette-butt bins are among more than 480 such bins that Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful has installed within the river’s watershed. The shared effort will install another 90 during the coming months.

Dollywood is among the 73 sites that have installed bins, making it the first theme park in the world that recycles all the cigarette butts it collects, Gibi says.

Partnering to remove cigarette filters from the river is only part of the aquarium’s ongoing mission to understand the impact on freshwater habitats from microplastics pollution.

Dr. Anna George, the Aquarium’s vice president of conservation science and education, said, “It’s urgent to understand better ways to manufacture and dispose of plastics, so we reduce their impact on the environment.”

The Tennessee Aquarium recently installed a new exhibit in the River Journey Building where visitors can discover the impact of microplastics on freshwater environments. The Tennessee Department of Transportation funded this exhibit as part of their Nobody Trashes Tennessee litter reduction campaign.

In September 2020, the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute and the University of Georgia River Basin Center convened a digital gathering of 50 researchers conducting pioneering studies into the impact of microplastics on freshwater systems.

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