Much like smoking, flicking cigarette butts seems to be a tough habit to break. For habitual smokers there’s something quite automatic about the act, and this has had dire consequences on our environment. It’s estimated that 4.5 trillion individual cigarette filters are littered in the environment each year.
In this blog, we talk about the dangers of this overlooked pollutant. We also explore options for preventing more cigarette butts from entering the
Cigarette Butts are ‘forgotten pollutants’
Nowadays, the public’s increased awareness of the impact of plastic pollution is paving the way for state-wide bans on avoidable plastic items like single-use bags and straws. But one major source of plastic pollution has been largely overlooked—cigarette butts.
While they may contain paper or wood pulp, cigarette butts are predominantly made from plastic fibres. The soft texture of these fibres often leads people to assume that they’re made of natural materials like cotton or paper.
Unfortunately, this incorrect assumption may have also caused smokers to think that cigarette butts will biodegrade, and are therefore harmless to flick away. This misconception spells grave consequences for wildlife, especially aquatic life.
The Toxicity of Cigarette Butts
When you toss a cigarette butt, you’re not only contributing more plastic pollution, but you’re also introducing harmful chemicals to the environment. Littered cigarette filters release toxins like arsenic and heavy metals. They also contain nicotine and carcinogens found in tobacco.
These chemicals are poisonous to wildlife. Research has shown that marine life—including fish, invertebrate species, and bacteria—can be severely sensitive to the toxins leached by both smoked and unsmoked cigarette butts.
Options for Preventing Cigarette Butt Pollution
While getting people to quit smoking is undeniably the best solution in eliminating cigarette butt pollution, there are options for nudging habitual smokers not to litter.
One option that a number of NGOs have touted is to encourage smokers to opt for filterless cigarettes or rolling tobacco. These alternatives may even be more desirable than filtered cigarettes given that cigarette butts have actually been found to increase the risk of cancer. Contrary to popular assumption, cigarette butts don’t really do anything to reduce the harmful effects of smoking, and can trap residues of toxic heavy metals like arsenic and cadmium.
Another option is to increase the number of cigarette butt receptacles in public spaces, making it easy for smokers to properly dispose of their waste correctly. Coupling this strategy with wider public education could prove effective in stopping people from flicking the butt, and taking more responsibility for their environmental impact.