I knew a man who always carried a small tin can with him. As he walked he would absently pause at ashtrays to root out a few cigarette butts, or stoop to pick a discarded butt off the concrete, or glance behind the shrubbery of entrances to see if any hasty hand had cast there the remains of their habit.
I knew a woman who would spend hours at a table slowly unraveling just this kind of gathered goods, tapping the loosened, unsmoked tobacco into a small pile that quickly grew larger. She would work her way through hundreds of half-smoked, mostly-smoked, occasionally almost-unsmoked butts–these latter are called Cadillacs. Thumb to forefinger, slowly rubbing until the paper wrapping loosened and little golden shreds tumbled out, she managed to keep herself in smokes without much money.
I also knew a man who’s moods were dependent on the rains. Rains meant most of the cast off butts would be soaked. Half-smoked tobacco becomes unsmokable when it is drenched. He knew where all the sheltered ash trays were. He was territorial about an ashtray under an awning outside the courthouse, pointing out to me that people waiting for a verdict smoked with nerves and were most likely to toss a mostly unsmoked cigarette to the wayside.
In the Pacific Northwest this practice is called sniping: searching for cigarette butts with enough unsmoked tobacco left in them to warrant the time it takes to find, unravel, and re-roll them. I’ve seen the practice in many States and on at least three continents. It is ubiquitous among people who haven’t got much money. And I think it reveals something about waste.
Unsurprisingly, this form of recycling is not going to garner any praise as a green activity. It has these strikes against it: strike one: smoking isn’t good for you. Tobacco, like heroin or cocaine, is not something people are happy to conserve, probably because there is an assumption you shouldn’t be using it in the first place. Strike two: even if tobacco were good for you, the practice of salvaging the unburnt tobacco out of other people’s cigarettes is considered a health-risk. I imagine it is rare, but you can probably get hepatitis from the practice. Strike three: it’s uncivilized. This may be the same as strike two, but I think sniping is an activity that too clearly reveals poverty. We are reluctant to laud what feels like desperation.
I think of Thorstein Veblen and how he thought that waste was a mode of demonstrating status. The list of conservations we have never considered is as long as the list of wasteful practices we pursue to prove how lovely we are.
Featured image credit: Dave Hunt, file photo: AAP.