AUGUSTA — In response to a group of Cony High School students’ disgust at the number of cigarette butts littering local streets and sidewalks, city councilors recently voted to alter an ordinance against littering to specify that tobacco products such as butts are, indeed, litter, and thus illegal to just toss onto the ground.

The seemingly minor change is meant to help address what the students described as a big problem.

In May, five Cony freshmen who studied the environmental and health hazards of discarded cigarette butts as part of a community service learning project asked the City Council to take action and consider banning tossing butts where they don’t belong, similar to a ban enacted by the city of Portland. They brought councilors a large commercial-sized pickle jar full of butts they said they collected in about an hour on Water Street in downtown Augusta.

The students told councilors discarded butts are a huge problem in Augusta and worldwide. Student Hannah Reis said cigarette butts can last 30 years, leak toxic chemicals into the air and water, can start fires when tossed before being fully extinguished, and could even injure or kill a toddler if one were to eat a butt he or she finds on the ground.

Thursday, councilors unanimously approved proposed changes to the city’s anti-littering ordinance, adding “tobacco products” to a list of items specifically banned from being dumped anywhere on public property other than in containers meant for garbage or rubbish, or at the city landfill.

“This (ordinance change) will be the direct result of the work of students of Cony High School,” Mayor William Stokes said. “I do want to recognize them and thank them for what they did. The council has listened, and I think you should be very proud of yourself for what you accomplished.”

Ordinance violators could be hit with a fine of up to $100.

In Portland, a similar change to the city’s littering ordinance took effect on March 7. The Portland ordinance also includes the $100 fine for violations

Augusta City Councilor Jeffrey Bilodeau said he recently read a USA Today story that explained recycling programs for cigarette butts and the potential harm when chemicals from butts leach into the environment. He said the story mentioned the recently enacted ban on tossing butts in Portland.

A brief walk Sunday down both sides of the downtown section of Water Street revealed relatively few cigarette butts — fewer than 70 — left on the sidewalk. That’s far fewer, at least, than it would take to fill another pickle jar.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]