Students research effectiveness of WB smoking ban

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University of North Carolina Wilmington students have been studying the effects of Wrightsville Beach’s smoking ban, and while they say Wrightsville Beach is “doing good so far,” they’re proposing several ways for the town to do better.

Graduate environmental studies student Sara Melick will share the students’ results with the Wrightsville Beach Board of Aldermen April 14, along with a few recommendations, which include larger cigarette butt receptacles and more signage.

Wrightsville Beach became the first non-smoking beach in North Carolina in November 2012. Melick and her classmates have collected data showing a steady decline in cigarette butts on the beach every year since the ban.

“We found that cigarette butts continue to be the No. 1 item on the beach, but we can see that the ban has been effective in reducing them,” she said.

The students participating in the project have taken over 500 samples since 2012. At each beach access, they marked off one square meter and removed the top five centimeters of sand, including all manmade and natural debris. They separated and counted or weighed all the litter they found, which included not only cigarette butts, but also plastic straws and foam.

In addition to recording cigarette butt totals for the whole beach, Melick said, they also kept track of where they found the butts to determine where the “hot spots” were.

At certain beach accesses, like Public Beach Access Nos. 5 and 7 toward the north end of the beach, they found no cigarette butts. But accesses around the pier yielded large numbers of cigarettes. The most butts — nearly 120 — were collected at access 37, just south of Crystal Pier.

For the most part, Melick said high cigarette counts correlated with high-use areas of the beach, which didn’t surprise her.

“It was what we expected,” she said. “Those sections [near the piers]have more parking and people just congregate at those areas.”

But access 37 was also lacking some signage informing people of the smoking rules, as were accesses 17 near Johnnie Mercer’s Pier, 42 and 43 on the very south end. So Melick’s first recommendation is to put signage at those accesses.

Her other suggestion is to install larger cigarette butt receptacles at the high-use accesses or empty them more often, because she has seen the one at Johnnie Mercer’s Pier packed completely full.

She also hopes to partner with community organizations dedicated to cleaning the environment like Surfrider Cape Fear, Plastic Ocean Project, Boy Scouts of America and Girl Scouts. She’d like to see a program implemented to allow groups to “Adopt a Pier.” Organizations that got involved in the effort to clean Wrightsville Beach’s beach strand — and specifically the pier areas — would get a small plaque or sign to recognize their work.

The program would encourage those numerous local groups to come together to keep Wrightsville Beach clean, similar to how the 45 UNCW students came together to collect the cigarette butt data. They were all seeking field research experience, Melick said, but they came from different majors.

For Melick, the project was just as much a work of passion as it was a school requirement. Last spring, she heard Plastic Ocean Project executive director Bonnie Monteleone present her work on reducing plastic and litter in the ocean. Immediately after, Melick contacted Monteleone to figure out how she could get involved.

Melick explained, “If you’ve ever seen [Monteleone] present, afterwards you feel like you want to go change the world.”

email emmy@luminanews.com

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