Cigarette butts are not just unsightly to see. They are toxic. They leak chemicals and microfibres into soil, waterways, lakes, and the ocean.
Research shows that cigarette butts (filter and remnant tobacco) are lethal to freshwater organisms such as Daphnia magna. We must change smokers’ littering behavior by introducing biodegradable filters, increasing fines and penalties, monetary deposits, and expanding access to butt receptacles.
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Cigarette butts contain dangerous chemicals, including arsenic, lead, and nicotine, as well as the plastic toxins in their filters. Whether flicked onto beaches or discarded elsewhere, these tiny butts threaten fish and marine life. They can be eaten or ingested and are a significant source of toxins in our waterways. Field biologists and wildlife rehabilitators routinely find butts in the intestines of dead sea birds, sea turtles, fish, and dolphins.
The chemicals in cigarette butts are not just from the tobacco itself but also from the paper wrappers, matches, and disposable lighters. These products are a potent mix of chemicals, with some studies finding that just one cigarette butt can contaminate a liter of water and contain 22 different toxic compounds. Plants then take up these chemicals and can ultimately end up in the food chain, harming people and animals that eat those foods.
Cigarette manufacturers and anti-litter campaigns have worked hard to educate smokers about the environmental impact of butts. Nevertheless, their efforts have not swayed smokers’ entrenched ‘butt flicking’ habits. Despite campaigns for handheld and permanent ashtrays, smoking remains popular with many, and the industry’s research shows that smokers tend to ignore warnings about butts’ toxic nature.
Although small, cigarette butts are one of the most common litters worldwide. They are made from a type of plastic, cellulose acetate, and, as such, contribute to the global volume of microplastic pollution. Moreover, if smoked, the acetate fibers can break apart and release organic compounds into the environment that are harmful to aquatic organisms.
The adsorption properties of cigarette filters can continue to resorb and resolve organic pollutants in the environment, making them highly toxic for marine organisms such as Daphnia magna. The microplastic fibers separated from cigarette butts can also be ingested by aquatic organisms and cause long-term mortality due to toxicity and bioaccumulation.
A significant part of cigarette waste is disposed of incorrectly, breaking down under natural conditions into microplastics and organic compounds. Cellulose acetate has a low degradation rate, and the detachable microfibres can remain for a long time in the environment.
It is crucial to make smokers aware of the dangers of cigarette butts and to raise public awareness on how to dispose of them correctly. As for the tobacco industry, they should be responsible and accountable for their products in line with the polluter pays principle. It is high time they started paying for cigarette butt collection services and other measures to prevent further environmental harm.
The plastic material used in cigarette butts, cellulose acetate, might take more than ten years to break down. They account for over a billion pounds of global annual plastic pollution and, along with packaging, matches, disposable lighters, and other cigarette-related “collateral” waste, contribute to the overall weight of smoking-related litter, the most prevalent form of trash on beaches worldwide.
Unwanted chemicals and microplastics leach from cigarette butts into aquatic environments, damaging marine life and affecting human health through ingestion. These contaminants can also alter genetics, impede respiration rates, and cause other harms that affect entire ecosystems.
In our survey, we asked participants to report the number of butts they had improperly discarded in the past 24 hours. The likelihood that someone would agree that seeing cigarette butts on the ground bothered them was higher among those who reported smoking less and those who carried a personal pocket ashtray. Participants who identified as Black or African American were less likely to agree with this statement than participants who identified as White.
The world needs to see cigarette butts for what they are, an unwanted chemical and microplastic pollutant that is just the final act of a product that damages the environment at every stage of its lifecycle. Concerns over toxic waste resulting from electronic devices have given rise to laws that impose a consumer-funded advanced recycling fee at the point of purchase, which could also be applied to cigarette butts.
The plastic used to make cigarette butts, cellulose acetate, can take several years to break down entirely in the environment. When soaked in water, chemicals leach out and harm aquatic species. Researchers found that when cigarette butt litter is suspended in freshwater, it can impact many biological pathways, including hormonal regulation, tumor suppression, and embryonic development.
Another concern is that nicotine in cigarette butts can bioaccumulate in the bodies of animals that ingest them. This process, known as bioaccumulation, can lead to toxic chemical levels in some organisms. Researchers frequently discover cigarette butts inside dead fish, turtles, and seabirds.
The same is true for e-cigarette waste. A recent study by NIST found that discarded e-cigarette cartridges – which contain metal, circuitry, and disposable plastic, and lithium batteries – are non-biodegradable and cannot be recycled. They wash into storm drains, get pushed around by weather events, and pollute waterways and the ocean.
The study used the NIST’s Cigarette Emissions Monitoring System to measure the levels of hundreds of chemicals emitted from extinguished cigarette butts. It also looked at the effects of environmental factors such as temperature, humidity, and saturation in water on the rate at which these chemicals were emitted. Nicotine and triacetin were emitted at the highest rates.
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