Cigarette butts (filter +remnant of unsmoked cigarette) are the most widely littered item IN THE WORLD. They are the number one single item picked up on beach cleanup days around the world. While many people may view this as merely a nuisance and an eyesore, it is actually much more complicated and very harmful to the environment. For the month of August, we are shining the spotlight on cigarette butt litter as part of our Stormwater Partnership AntiLitter Campaign. We hope to raise awareness and reduce the amount of cigarette litter seen throughout our watershed.
Everyday, thousands of cigarette butts are thrown on the sidewalk and out of car windows, rather than being placed in the trash or butt containers. It is estimated that merely ⅓ of all butts end up in the proper place. This problem has grown as indoor smoking bans become more popular. While these bans are great news for anyone looking to avoid exposure to noxious, chemical-ridden cigarette smoke, they have proven to be bad news for ecosystems in terms of litter. As a side note, even e-cigarettes are contributing to this litter problem, as many people simply pitch their cartridges instead of disposing of them in a responsible manner.
While many people think that the filters on their cigarettes are made of natural, biodegradable materials, this is not the case. Filters are made from cellulose acetate, a plastic that is slow to degrade in the environment; like all traditional plastics, it will never fully disappear. As it degrades, tiny strands of plastic (i.e. microplastics) are released into soil and water. Microplastics are a hot topic these days and are everywhere around us. These tiny particles easily pass through water filtration systems and end up in water bodies, where they are consumed by wildlife.
Filters are engineered to pull particulates (such as tar) and chemicals out of cigarette smoke. While this creates an illusion of safety for smokers, it also makes the butts more chemical-ridden. According to a 2011 study, over 4000 chemicals may be introduced to the environment via cigarette particulate matter (tar) and mainstream smoke. So, let’s talk for a minute about all the wonderful chemicals (please, note my sarcasm here), that butts leach into water and soil as they persist in our environment. One of the most prolific chemicals is nicotine, a powerful natural insecticide. Many animals depend on insects for survival and the presence of nicotine in the environment has the potential to create ecological havoc. Cigarette smoke, and therefore filters, have also been found to contain formaldehyde (aka embalming fluid), ammonia, acetone, lead, arsenic, and benzene, among others. Some of these compounds are known to bioaccumulate, meaning that they accumulate in living organisms, so that their concentrations in body tissues continue to increase. This is not a one-and-done issue – as we move up the food chain, these chemicals are passed from predator to prey. Additionally, fish, birds, turtles, and other creatures have also been known to eat cigarette butts and/or feed them to their young, mistaking them for food. I don’t know about you, but I certainly wouldn’t be feeding these toxic pieces of trash to my children if I knew better!
Who would have thought that an action as simple as tossing a butt out the window could have such far-reaching consequences? While it is unlikely that cigarette smoking will be going away anytime soon, the litter associated with it is something that we can make a concerted effort to reduce.
Please, don’t flick your butt. Put it in the trash, where it belongs. If you would like to quit smoking and need assistance, call 1-800-QUIT-NOW (1-800-784-8669)
Resources for further reading:
- Discusses the way that cig butts get into waterways and a filter that can be fitted to storm drains to prevent litter from getting into sewers.
- Study that discusses the toxicity of cig butts for marine and freshwater fish
- Info on worldwide impact of cig butt litter
- Good resource that tells you how to set up a demonstration to show how cig butts pollute water
- Non profit aimed at eliminating cigarette waste
- Discusses the chemicals found in cigarette smoke