By Emma Tucker
— “See? there’s a girl smoking right there on the bench,” said Marcus Smit, Amsterdam University College’s (AUC) Team Leader of Internationalisation, as he pointed to the benches outside the academic building. “There’s another one. She already has her hands in her bag, so that cigarette was chucked on the ground. They are completely unaware of the fact that they are littering in their own community.”
Officially, smoking is banned within ten meters of the AUC building, which includes the benches, the grass, and the area under the covered entrance. The only space where smoking is permitted is on the bridge to the left of the building next to the yellow smoking poll, which is typically either vacant or occupied by one or two professors, but rarely students. Observing the grounds outside the building, however, one can quickly surmise that the rules, for the most part, do not apply to AUC smokers.
AUC’s smoking ban is written in both the social code of conduct and the student handbook, which full-degree students receive when they arrive. “NO SMOKING” signs are also conspicuously posted at all building entrances. With no one policing the active population of AUC smokers, they continue to smoke where they please and discard their butts wherever they happen to take the last drag. However, the burden of cleaning up falls on housemistress Rina Sommer who is responsible for building maintenance. “Every single day I’m cleaning them up,” she said. “Look, let me show you what I mean,” said Sommer as she pointed to the ground. “The worst part is that the cigarette butts fall into the cracks between the stones and I have to scrape them out with scissors. Ugh, it’s annoying.”
In need of a solution, AUC is faced with two opposing approaches: one, mandating that smokers congregate around smoking facilities, which contains their habit and its evidence to designated areas; and two, banning smoking altogether, which will likely prove as effective as the current requirement to smoke only at the conspicuous yellow post, resulting in the continued proliferation of discarded cigarette butts in all the places they are not supposed to be found. Over the past few years, numerous proposals have been advanced to deal with this issue once and for all. Remarkably, an effective solution has been thwarted, it seems, due to architectural aesthetics. “We looked at creating a covered smoking area further away from the building,” said Smit, “but this building is done by an architect and there is no real space where you can put such a thing.”
Since the plan to create a covered smoking area has its own controversies, the lingering question is how to incentivize smokers to discard their butts responsibly. “I think they should design the space so that people will dispose of their cigarettes more easily,” said Olivia Louise Brown, a third-year Science major. “People also smoke because they are stressed by AUC’s environment. On the one hand, it’s students being inconsiderate and on the other hand, it’s the administration not doing something about it because it is an addiction, so I don’t know how they will solve it unless they make a nicer area for us.” By creating a more pleasant and inviting area for smokers, some fear that this will somehow encourage more people to smoke, even if segregating their habit to a designated area.
Other universities in Amsterdam cater to smokers by designating many more areas and ashtrays for those who can’t quite kick the habit. Curiously, at Vrije Universiteit, smoking is forbidden in front of all school buildings, with the exception of the main entrance. One wonders about the effectiveness of this mixed message. “We have ashtrays, which has helped create a cleaner environment,” said Barbara Sassen from VU’s portfolio management department. “We use them as a communication tool as well because it helps to refer smokers to the designated area.” Sassen said that the university’s administrators are currently exploring the possibility of banning smoking entirely from the VU campus, but as of now, the campus maintenance staff cleans the cigarette butts twice per day.
Similar to the VU, the University of Amsterdam buildings also have designated smoking areas with available ashtrays. “These are used quite well and as a result, the areas are generally clean and tidy,” said Johan Rheeder, from UvA press. “The smoking areas are located in such a way as to ensure the least possible nuisance to non-smokers.”
With a student population of roughly 900, AUC students have the ability to actually know one another and have the capacity to deal with issues in a collaborative manner. “I actually think AUC is one of the few places where we could actually change it if people would just do it collectively,” said Smit.
“I try really hard to put it in the bin,” said Roos Kruimer, a third-year Humanities major, “but if I’m sitting on the grass, out of convenience, I just throw it. I had no idea smoking was banned on the benches or in the grass.” Many AUC smokers are unaware that Sommer is the only person cleaning up after them. “Me hearing that now, I’m realizing how wasteful and inconsiderate it is to throw your cigarette butts,” said Cullen Ogden, a second-year Humanities major.
Real change, as in most other things, comes about one mindset at a time. With this realization by a few more students like Ogden, perhaps a lasting solution is not so elusive after all.
Editor’s note: This news story is part of a collaboration between The Herring and AUC’s journalism course. The story was entirely reported, written, edited, and fact checked by members of the journalism course. Some material may have been altered by The Herring’s editors to fit its style guidelines.