Cigarette butts are the biggest source of ocean garbage

Plastics straws have been public enemy No. 1 for a while now, as companies, cities and even a couple of states have made strides to ban them. However, there’s a new villain on the scene.

Cigarette butts — those pesky leftover remnants — contain plastic in the filters that isn’t biodegradable. These butts easily find their way into the ocean simply because they are cast aside so indiscriminately. Getting rid of cigarette butts may help the health of humans, oceans and marine life all at the same time.

“It’s pretty clear there is no health benefit from filters. They are just a marketing tool. And they make it easier for people to smoke,” Thomas Novotny, a professor of public health at San Diego State University and the CEO of Cigarette Butt Pollution Project, told NBC News. “It’s also a major contaminant, with all that plastic waste. It seems like a no-brainer to me that we can’t continue to allow this.”

Bad for humans and oceans

Some 5.5 trillion cigarettes are produced each year around the world, and the majority of those — the Cigarette Butt Pollution Project clocks the number at 4.96 trillion — have filters made of cellulose acetate. Cellulose acetate can take a decade or longer to break down under ultraviolet light, which in turn disperses the toxic plastic into smaller bits.

The filters ostensibly reduce the amount of tar a smoker inhales when taking a drag. But filters force smokers to inhale more deeply to get the same sensation from the tar and nicotine. The result is the illusion of a healthier version of a bad-for-you product.

Filters also further increase the presence of plastics in our environment. For the last 32 years, cigarette butts have been the most commonly found item during the Ocean Conservancy’s annual international coastal cleanup project; they accounted for 2.4 million of the items found on global beaches during the 2017 clean-up. (By comparison, 644,000 plastic straws were found last year.)

There’s no telling, of course, how many cigarettes were discarded on the beach that had already been swept into the ocean. Scientists have reported finding the remains of cigarettes in seabirds and sea turtles, NBC News reported. Even water fleas and micro bacteria have been contaminated by cigarettes.

A cigarette butt stubbed into the sands of a beach The beach is not an ashtray. (Photo: Helen Penjam/Flickr)

Seemingly aware of the litter problem, cigarette companies have long attempted to help smokers dispose of the cigarettes butts, by sponsoring anti-litter campaigns and distributing permanent and disposable ashtrays. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. once distributed disposable pouches for smokers to discard their butts in.

Smokers have a hard time ditching the butt-flicking behavior, however. NBC News cited industry focus groups that found smokers thought ashtrays were too disgusting to use, believed filters were biodegradable, and thought butts needed to be put on the ground. One group even said that flicking the butt into the environment was simply “a natural extension of the defiant/rebellious smoking ritual.”

So now various groups are working to stem the cigarette butt tide and save the oceans. Novotny’s group has a list of policy positions, including putting the onus of butt cleanup on the tobacco companies themselves, enacting a ban on disposable filters, litigating the environmental harm cigarettes do, and the overall elimination of smoking. The anti-cigarette campaign, The Truth, is also gunning for cigarette butts.

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Legislators have struggled to get filters banned, and littering laws have always been difficult to enforce. Novotny told NBC News that any serious movement against filters will likely require the American Cancer Society, the American Lung Association and the American Heart Association to get involved, just as they have regarding the dangers of cigarettes on human health.

Of course, environmental health is human health; it’s just a matter of getting everyone to see it that way.


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