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Earth Talk – Little cigarette butts make big litter impact

When cigarette butts become litter, they have a negative impact on the environment. The filters are made of a plastic that can take up to 10 years to decompose.

By The Editors of E Magazine / November 18, 2009

A jogger on the Carlsbad (Calif.) sea wall passes an ashcan for cigarette butts, which constitute up to one-third of all items discarded as litter.

ZUMA Press/NEWSCOM

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Q: Has anyone ever studied the environmental impact of discarded cigarettes? I’m constantly appalled at the number of drivers I see pitching their butts out their car windows.
Ned Jordan, via e-mail

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A:   It’s true that littered cigarette butts are a public nuisance, and not just for aesthetic reasons. The filters on cigarettes – four-fifths of all cigarettes have them – are made of cellulose acetate, a form of plastic that is very slow to degrade in the environment. A typical cigarette butt can take anywhere from 18 months to 10 years to decompose, depending on conditions.

But beyond the plastic, these filters – which are on cigarettes in the first place to absorb contaminants to prevent them from going into the lungs – contain trace amounts of toxins such as cadmium, arsenic, and lead.

Thus, when smokers discard their butts improperly – out car windows or off the end of a pier or onto the sidewalk – they are essentially tossing these substances into the environment.

Studies done by Johns Hopkins University, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and even the tobacco industry show that these contaminants can get into soils and waterways, harm or kill living organisms, and generally degrade surrounding ecosystems.

While individual discarded cigarette butts may be small, they add up to a huge problem. Some 5.5 trillion cigarettes are consumed worldwide each year.

Keep America Beautiful reports that cigarette butts constitute as much as one-third of all litter nationwide when measured by the number of discarded items, not by volume.

According to the Ocean Conservancy, which advocates for stronger protection of marine ecosystems, cigarette butts are the most common litter found on America’s salt- and freshwater beaches.

Critics say the tobacco industry should be doing more to prevent cigarette butt litter. “Just as beverage manufacturers contribute to antilitter campaigns, and have invested in public education on litter issues, so, too, should the tobacco industry,” says Kathleen Register, founder and executive director of Clean Virginia Waterways, a nonprofit group that has spearheaded the fight against cigarette butt litter in the mid-Atlantic region.

Ms. Register suggests a number of strategies, including putting antilitter messages on all cigarette packaging and advertisements; distributing small, free, portable ashtrays; and placing and maintaining outdoor ashtrays in areas where smokers congregate.

She also suggests putting an extra tax on cigarette sales, with proceeds going toward antilitter education efforts and to defray the costs of cleaning up butts.

“Picking up littered cigarette butts costs schools, businesses, and park agencies money,” she says. “By taxing smokers for antilitter educational efforts, some of the costs of cleaning up cigarette butts will shift onto smokers.”

Questions about living green? Send to: EarthTalk, c/o E - The Environmental Magazine, Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com.

Editor’s note: For more articles about the environment, see the Monitor’s main environment page, which offers information on many environment topics. Also, check out our Bright Green blog archive and our RSS feed.