When we hear “plastic pollution,” we often think of plastic straws up turtles’ noses, plastic bags drifting in the wind or plastic bottles floating in our ocean. Even if we’ve never actually seen these cases of plastic pollution in-person, they’re the first thing we picture... oddly enough.
The thing is, you don’t have to go far to see plastic pollution “in real life.” Simply go outside and you’ll likely see a piece of plastic polluting your home. More often than not, that piece of plastic is a cigarette butt.
The Most Littered Item In The World
Every year since 1986, the Ocean Conservancy hosts the International Coastal Cleanup (ICC). But the ICC is not just a bunch of beachcombers with trash bags. Every volunteer is also tasked with tallying the items they find on data cards or through the Clean Swell app.
The information collected gives a global snapshot of ocean trash. And with data, researchers, policy-makers, and the general public can make informed changes to better their behaviors and work towards solutions.
Last year, more than one million people participated in the ICC and collected over 23 million pounds of trash across 22,300 miles of beaches, coastlines and waterways. Of more than 97 million items collected during last year’s ICC, cigarette butts were the most collected item, with over 5.7 million recorded. This continues a decades long streak of being the most collected item.
Why Littering Rates Are Sky High
Given the sheer volume of cigarettes being sold everyday, it’s no wonder they’re found so often. Approximately 6.5 trillion cigarettes are sold worldwide each year, that’s roughly 18 billion cigarettes per day.
Granted, you could make a similar argument for single-use plastics like plastic straws. Given the sheer volume that are used everyday, plastic straws should also be a common type of litter, right? Don’t worry, that wasn’t a trick question, single-use plastics like plastic straws are often collected as litter, but they’re not the most littered item in the world, only the third most.
Anyway, one of the reasons cigarette butts are the most littered item in the world is because to many, flicking them on the ground isn’t considered littering, it’s just how you throw away a cigarette. Whereas flicking away your used plastic straw is definitely considered littering.
We know, unbelievable! But flicking cigarettes out a car window or stomping them into the ground only to walk away and leave them there is so common that 75 percent of smokers report doing it. Studies estimate that smokers litter as many as 65 percent of their cigarette butts.
Toxic, Plastic “Tea Bags”
The majority of what’s left of a cigarette, and what’s flicked into our environment, is the filter. These filters may look like a natural, cotton-based material, but all of those small string-like fibers are actually made of plastic, cellulose acetate to be specific.
Cellulose acetate can take up to a decade to degrade, and that’s in optimal conditions. And it’s not like they degrade into nothingness, rather, they break up into thousands of small, microplastic fibers to the point that it’s no longer recognizable as a cigarette butt. These microplastic fibers can travel through water, air, and animal (in our food chain) and is an unseen, unavoidable pollutant on this plastic planet we’ve created.
But it’s not just the plastic filter that pollutes our environment forever more, it’s the toxic chemicals it just “filtered” that now leach into our surroundings.
Sidenote: We put “filtered” in quotation marks because the cigarette filters of today don’t actually filter anything to improve smokers' health. Filters were first introduced in the 1950s in response to the growing concerns of lung cancer. And by the late-1950s, filtered cigarette sales surpassed those of unfiltered cigarettes. Back then, these filters actually did block lung cancer causing toxins.
But in the mid-1960s, researchers realized that while the filters made the cigarettes “safer,” (a term used loosely here and altogether a debatable claim) they also made them less satisfying because they filtered out the very things that smokers liked about smoking, like nicotine. So rather than ditch the filter and sell unfiltered cigarettes, tobacco companies kept the filters as a marketing tool and re-engineered them to be less effective in order to allow the nicotine to flow.
Anyway, make no mistake, while they’re not great at filtering the more than 7,000 chemicals in tobacco smoke, 69 of which are known to cause cancer, they do soak up just enough to act like toxic tea bags in our environment. Whether in our soil or in our water, they’ll leach toxic chemicals like arsenic, used in rat poisoning, butane, used in lighter fluid, lead, used in batteries and many more into its surroundings.
Obviously, these chemicals are toxic to fish, microorganisms, and humans, should a child pick one up while playing outside. In one laboratory study, a cigarette butt was soaked for 24 hours in a liter of water. The chemicals leached from that single cigarette butt were harmful enough to kill 50 percent of saltwater and freshwater fish that were exposed to the contaminated water in just 4 days.
How We Clean Up This Mess
Other than participating in an international cleanup effort to take care of the mess we’ve created, we can prevent this mess by just caring more, seriously.
If you smoke, care more about properly disposing your cigarettes. Don’t flick them out of your car, rather, keep an ashtray in your car. And be prepared for when there is no designated receptacle by keeping on you at all times a portable, pocket ashtray.
If you don’t smoke, hold those that do responsible. Educate them on the consequences of littering cigarettes and other tobacco products. If you see someone flick their cigarette butt, ask them to pick it up and properly dispose of it, show them that flicking is not okay or an accepted method of disposal.
Lastly, think about this. If your bathtub was overflowing, you wouldn’t reach for a mop first, you’d first turn off the tap. While in an ideal world, we would all quit smoking tomorrow⏤no more cigarettes, no more toxic waste, we have to be practical here.
That’s why we need to think big and call for legislation that holds tobacco companies accountable for their product’s waste and follows extended producer responsibility (EPR) principles. For example, legislation that shifts product disposal management responsibilities away from local communities and taxpayers to producers, distributors and consumers of tobacco products. Or mandating corporate take-back programmes for tobacco product waste and changing the product so that it creates less waste at the end of life, i.e. eliminating the cellulose acetate filter.
Cigarette butts aren’t just litter, they’re plastic pollution. We can’t forget that in this war on plastic. Raising awareness about the environmental impact of cigarette butts is the first step. The second step is caring enough to walk the walk and act, hold everyone accountable, and be the change you wish to see in this world.