Cigarette butt pollution in our environment

The real effects of cigarette butt litter are relatively unknown to most, so you may be surprised to learn the facts.

Cigarette butt pollution - Picture of used butts in the sandEducation is needed to stop cigarette butt pollution

Are you, or someone in your household a smoker? Or do you have friends that smoke? We're not here to go into the health effects of smoking, but we are going to discuss the one least thought about aspect of this habit - Cigarette butt pollution!

With trillions of cigarettes (literally) being bought each year around the world, approximately 75% aren't being disposed of properly.

Cigarette butts are the most littered item on our Planet.

We see smokers casually flick their butts onto the footpath, into the gutter, or out a car window (without a care). I've seen numerous people stub out their "ciggy" into a pot plant and leave it there (gross). How is that ok?

You can find discarded butts in public reserves and campsites, along riversides, and in children's playgrounds. They're everywhere. Smokers presume that cigarette butts are just little bits of paper and cotton that will decompose in no time. This is far from the truth! 

info about cigarette butts

Cigarette butt litter - Picture of filters close upOne filter is made up from approximately 12,000 plastic fibres

What are the filters made out of?

Cigarette filters are typically made from cellulose acetate fibre which is a plastic. These plastic fibres are very fine and when packed together, look a lot like cotton. The filter's wrapping consists of papers, rayon, and polyvinyl acetate emulsion (glue). Chemical additives control the cigarettes burning rate (how many puffs) and a pigment is added make the ash look more complimentary. It's understandable why filters look like they would break down quickly, but unfortunately, they don't.

How long do cigarette butts take to decompose?

Cigarette filters are said to take between 18 months and ten years (depending on conditions) to degrade in the environment. However, they end up breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces. They are essentially microplastics.

Microplastics in filters

Most of us have heard about microplastics which are one of the worst forms of pollution. These tiny pieces of plastic end up in our oceans and get ingested by marine animals. The creatures that eat these plastics can get sick or die. Microplastics are the most prevalent form of pollution in our oceans and have even been found on the seabed.

NBC News (US) reported that cigarette butts are the single greatest source of ocean trash. They also stated that researches found the detritus (residue) of cigarette butts in 70% of seabirds and 30% of sea turtles. New Zealand has a multitude of seabirds, and we have five species of sea turtles that are seen in our waters. 

While the effects of microplastics in soil are still relativity unknown, this too may pose a significant risk. The plastics may reduce soil health and could affect food chains. 

Toxicity of cigarette butt pollution

Cigarette butt left on the footpathWhere will this cigarette end up?

Around 600 ingredients are in cigarettes, yet thousands of chemical components may reside in used filters (trapped in the fibres). Some chemicals are added during the initial growing and manufacturing of tobacco. Others are the by-products from igniting a cigarette which produces chemical reactions. Toxic substances leach out of discarded butts into the soil and waterways.

Here are few of the chemicals that may be found in used cigarette butts -

  • Agricultural residues - Pesticides, herbicides, fungicides or rodenticides

  • Heavy metals - Arsenic, cadmium, lead, chromium, nickel

  • Chemicals - Acetone, found in nail polish remover
                   - Ammonia, used in household cleaners
                   - Benzene, in paints, rubber, and gasoline
                   - Butane, used as lighter fluid
                   - Formaldehyde, embalming fluid         

Most cigarette butts thrown away in the streets end up being washed into storm drains, and then into our rivers and seas. Leachate from the butts contaminates the water, which in turn, can harm or kill aquatic life living nearby.

The chemicals in cigarette butts are also detrimental to land ecosystems as they can kill plants, insects, fungus, and other organisms. Animals may consume the butts, putting them at risk of being poisoned.

Birds pick up cigarette butts to weave into their nests. Interestingly, scientists think that birds are using the nicotine in butts as a pesticide to ward off parasitic mites. They would naturally use insect-repelling plants for the same purpose. This practice may only be of short term benefit though, as the different chemicals might be harmful to hatchings.

A photographer took this incredibly sad picture of a bird feeding her baby a cigarette butt.

Toddlers innocently put all sorts of objects in their mouths. You wouldn't want to see your child eating a cigarette butt!  

New Zealand statistics on cigarette  butt pollution

Fingerprint with New Zealand flagLet's stub out the mess
  • Smokefree Aotearoa New Zealand states that 490,000 NZ adults smoke daily
  • New Zealand's first national litter audit found that an estimated 10 billion cigarette butts are polluting our ecosystems
  • About 78% of all our domestic litter is in the form of cigarette butts
  • Cigarette butts are among the most common beach litter found in NZ

Proper disposal of cigarette butts to help the environment

Woman having a smoke on stepsThis woman is doing the right thing
  1. Trials are being conducted overseas on cigarette butt recycling, although they're tricky to deal with. Having to separate the tobacco from the plastic is challenging.

  2. When having a smoke, please dispose of your used butts thoughtfully. Use an ashtray or non-combustible container. Later, make sure the butts are fully extinguished (we don't want any fires) before putting them into your rubbish.

  3. When you're out and about with no bin in sight, take your butts home to dispose of later. Some people carry a portable ashtray/tin (small enough to put in a pocket or bag) to store their butts in until they get home.

  4. Provide an ashtray to visitors at your home.

  5. Next time you see a friend toss away their cigarette butt, explain why it's important not to do that. It's most likely that they didn't realize the consequences.

  6. Business owners - If you run a cafe, restaurant, or bar, (places where customers congregate outside for a smoke), put a sign up near your entrance and exits. Ask people to kindly dispose of their cigarette butts in a provided tray or container.

  7. Workplaces (shops, offices, factories, etc.) must supply ashtrays for employees designated smoking areas. If cigarette butts are on the ground outside, a staff member should do a quick sweep up whenever it's needed. The butts look horrible, so you'll be tidying up the look of your premises.

  8. If you spot a cigarette butt while out walking in nature, pick it up and dispose of it properly. Help keep New Zealand beautiful!

Article by Justy

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