Cigarette butts are a huge problem around the world. They litter, and it doesn’t take much to poison water-based organisms. Research shows that it’s not uncommon to find cigarette butts in the stomachs of marine animals, birds, and mammals. Cigarette butts are made of plastic (cellulose acetate), and they take years to degrade. When they are carelessly discarded, they leak chemicals into the soil that can poison plants and animals that consume them.
Cigarette butts are a double-whammy of litter: besides being unsightly and difficult to clean up, they also contain dangerous chemicals. The toxins from the tobacco (including nicotine, which is addictive), as well as the plastic filter, leach into the soil and water. And since most cigarette butts aren’t properly disposed of, they can be ingested by fish, wildlife and humans. Although the number of cigarette butts found on beaches is relatively low, this doesn’t mean they don’t have an impact. These butts are swept away by wind and currents, and they eventually reach streets, storm drains, rivers and streams, and the ocean. They may also clog sewer systems and contribute to erosion.
Scientists are just beginning to understand how discarded butts negatively affect the environment. On land, cigarette butts release toxic heavy metals that can inhibit plant growth and reduce crop yields. Scientists are also finding that the global waste of cigarette buds is harmful to marine organisms and can disrupt the natural defensive behavior of any living organism.
Cigarette butts are made of cellulose acetate, a form of bioplastic. This makes them one of the world’s most littered objects and a significant contributor to the plastic pollution plaguing our planet. They take three months and 15 years to break down when thrown away, making them a long-term environmental hazard.
Because of this, they are a major source of microplastic and chemical pollution for aquatic ecosystems, including waterways, rivers, lakes, oceans, and wetlands. Additionally, cigarette butts can leak toxic chemicals and heavy metals into soil. These pollutants can interfere with the growth and development of organisms and, in some cases, even lead to death.
While it is not surprising that cigarettes are damaging the environment, many smokers don’t realize the impact of their improper cigarette butt disposal. They may not consider a butt a part of a litter, so they throw it on the ground or out their car window instead of into an ashtray or garbage can. Cigarette butts are so small, though, that they can be carried by wind and rain to waterways and other areas where they shouldn’t be.
Interviews with smokers who admit to improperly discarding their butts reveal common themes, such as uncertainty that cigarette butts are litter, a lack of knowledge about the health risks and environmental damage caused by butts, problems with the receptacles currently in place for smoking, and a general sense of not taking responsibility for their actions.
Cigarette butts are the world’s number one litter item. They can be found on sidewalks, roadsides, grassy spaces, beaches, and waterways. Cigarettes and their waste are non-biodegradable, resulting in them staying in the environment for a long time. Depending on the location and conditions, they can leak chemicals such as nicotine and heavy metals. They also leach microplastics into the environment. These pollutants can harm the environment and animals that ingest them.
A survey conducted by Keep America Beautiful found that cigarette butts make up between 25 and 50% of all littered items. They can clog storm drains, pollute the soil and waterways, and create an unsightly appearance in public places. Cigarette butts are the most difficult to clean up and require special equipment to remove from waterways. Those who clean them often face health risks due to the toxic chemicals they encounter.
When it comes to environmental litter, cigarette butts don’t get as much attention as plastic straws and coffee cups. Nevertheless, they are one of the biggest ocean-polluting contaminants and can cause harm to wildlife and plants.
Cigarette butts are made of a type of plastic called cellulose acetate, which takes years to decompose and contributes to plastic pollution. They also contain chemicals, such as nicotine, arsenic, and heavy metals, which leach into soil and water if improperly discarded. Littered butts often clog storm drains, resulting in waterway contamination. They may also float in waterways and are mistaken for food by animals, which can be dangerous if they are ingested.
In interviews, people who disposed of their last cigarette properly reported a variety of motivations for doing so. These included a perception that cigarette butts are:
- Clearly litter.
- Awareness of social constructs that disapprove of smokers and their behavior.
- Concerns about the cumulative effect of cigarette butts on beaches and other public spaces.
- A desire to avoid fines for littering and a sense of personal responsibility.
Prevention of cigarette butt pollution begins with education and the provision of convenient disposal receptacles for smokers. Smokers should carry a pocket ashtray and be prepared to discard their butts at the nearest receptacle when they are finished smoking. Businesses should provide ash and trash receptacles at entrances, loading docks, picnic areas, parking lots, and walkways to encourage responsible disposal.