The Dirt on Cigarette Butt Litter

A blog post by Rachel McGovern

The eight cigarette butts featured in my tale, indicated by yellow arrows. 

The eight cigarette butts featured in my tale, indicated by yellow arrows. 

Last week I decided to walk down to the beach to eat my lunch.  I found a nice log to sit on from which to admire birds harvesting the tidal zone, layers of majestic mountains, the smell of saltwater, and to think about how fortunate I am to have such opportunity.  Then I looked down.  At my feet, literally, were eight cigarette butts.  With a sigh I decided to count how many cigarette butts I could see without leaving my log perch.  Stigmatism aside, I was able to count 63 cigarette butts within an approximately 8’x8’ patch of beach, 64 sq ft.  That may not seem like much but, think of it this way, Vancouver beaches stretch a total of 18km, or 59 055 ft.  IF 63 butts were counted for every 64 sq ft on average, and we assume the beaches are 50 ft deep (this is a conservative number), we could estimate that there are nearly 30 million cigarette butts scattered all over Vancouver beaches at any given time!  Now THAT is a big number. 

 

Cigarette butts are the most prevalent form of garbage collected, not only locally at Surfrider Vancouver beach cleanups but, in many countries around the world.  

In 2015, 58% of the garbage collected by the Surfrider Vancouver research team volunteers was cigarette butts, and it is estimated that 1 million butts are littered in Vancouver every day!  

In 2011 the Ocean Conservancy, a not-for-profit organization, released a report summarizing the garbage collected by volunteers at beaches, lakes, rivers and streams located around the world, one day a year for the past 25 years. Of all garbage collected, 32% was cigarette butts.  Such a report is unique in its magnitude with data taken from 145 million pounds of garbage collected from 152 different countries.   

 

Over the span of 25 years (25 scheduled days) Ocean Conservancy volunteers around the world had collected 52, 907, 756 cigarette butts.

 To check out the full 2011 report click here: Ocean Conservancy 2011 Marine Debris Report.

But, why do we care?  Cigarette butts are biodegradable, right?  Wrong!  It is commonly assumed that cigarette butts are biodegradable, and I can see the logic as tobacco is from a plant and the cigarette itself is rolled in paper.  However, cigarettes butts are NOT biodegradable simply because the composition of a modern cigarette is far more complicated than leaves rolled in paper.  Let’s start with the tobacco. 

Only a fraction of the tobacco rolled in a cigarette is actually direct from the leaf of the tobacco plant.  The majority is composed of “reconstituted tobacco” and “puffed tobacco.”  As the name may suggest to some, reconstituted tobacco is a product made from the pulp of tobacco plant “waste,” namely stems.  They essentially make a stew of tobacco plant bits, dry it and treat it with up to 600 different chemicals, including the addictive nicotine.  Puffed tobacco is made by freeze-drying the tobacco with ammonium and Freon (the gas previously used in refrigeration) gases, which is quite the chemical reaction.  This process changes the structure of the tobacco making it fluffy, or “puffy”, and therefore filling more space within the cigarette.  Yikes!

Second, the rolling paper.  The paper itself has been carefully designed to optimize burn time, and like the tobacco, has been chemically altered.  To ensure a long, even burn, the rolling paper is treated with a number of chemicals.  In terms of cigarette butt litter, the tobacco leaf and paper components are biodegradable but, and this is a big BUT, the chemicals used in growing and processing the tobacco, the chemicals used to prepare the rolling paper, as well as the chemicals created as the cigarette burns are certainly not. 

Some of the notable chemicals found in cigarettes, and thus in cigarette butt litter, include up to 50 known carcinogens (cancer-causing agents), heavy metals and even cyanide and arsenic!  This leads me to the last component of the cigarette, the pièce de résistance, the filter.  The filter is designed to reputedly remove and trap these harmful chemicals from the inhaled smoke, thus protecting the smoker. 

The filter became mainstream in the 1950s when doctors started to associate smoking cigarettes with major health conditions like lung cancer.  The tobacco industry’s response was to design a filter to trap the chemicals that are released as the cigarette burns and the smoker inhales, thus preventing these chemicals from reaching the lung.  However, there is no evidence that filtered cigarettes are any safer than unfiltered cigarettes, and are now considered a marketing gimmick.  Now, 97% (in the US) of cigarettes are produced with a filter despite having no effect in preventing disease.  But wait, it gets worse.

Cigarette filters are composed of thousands of strands of fine plastic fibers, not cotton as is often assumed.  These plastic fibers are composed of cellulose acetate, a fancy name for rayon, and can persist in the environment for generations.  This material is not biodegradable, and only when the perfect combination of environmental conditions is met can the sun begin to breakdown these fibres a little by what is known as photodegradation.  But! Even if the perfect conditions are met, photodegradation will only break the fibers into smaller fragments, leaving the source material to persist in the environment.  

It is estimated that 6.3 trillion cigarettes were consumed globally in 2012, the majority of which were filtered.  Of that 6.3 trillion cigarettes, it is approximated that 65% were disposed of improperly, that is, 4 trillion cigarette butts were tossed recklessly into the environment.  In addition, it was estimated that Australia, a nation surrounded by ocean, alone contributed 24-32 billion cigarette butts to this number in 2006.  

The majority of cigarette butts are littered on urban streets.  A 2011 study conducted in Berlin demonstrated that the distribution of littered cigarette butts correlated with locations of cigarette sales and consumption.  Now, that may seem like a no-brainer but, this study was able to prove this assumption, identifying bars & pubs, convenience stores, liquor stores, cafes, gas stations, grocery stores, restaurants, traffic lights, as well as entrances to buildings with smoking bans and transit stops, as having the highest rates of cigarette butt waste.  In fact, outside a Berlin transit station the authors of this study counted 102 cigarette butts in a single puddle they estimated to be one square metre.  I’m going to state that again, 102 butts in a single puddle!

Though they are unsightly on city streets and beaches, the issue is actually far more critical as cigarette butt waste is hazardous.  As I stated above, the tobacco and filter of a cigarette are laden with chemicals, including well-known carcinogens and even arsenic.  As rain falls, as feet fall, cigarette butts can leach these harmful chemicals into the environment, contaminating the soil as well as the creatures that are dependant on that soil (microbes, plants, insects, birds, etc.) and their food chain.  In addition, cigarette butts have an uncanny ability to find their way into storm drains, which then channel them to nearby streams, rivers, lakes and or oceans.  Like mosquitos carry dengue fever and malaria, cigarette butts are a vector carrying heavy metals, nicotine and known carcinogens into the environment.

Aquatic environments are at the highest risk, as these environments are inhabited by many vulnerable species, do not have the help of photodegradation, enable continual leaching of toxins from the cigarette filter and the filters sink with no hope of retrieval.  In fact, fibers from cigarette filters are found in deep ocean sediment, and it is estimated that 2 billion of these fibers rest on the seabed for every square kilometre!  It is believed that the chemicals released from any remnant tobacco, the filters, and these fibers can remain in an aquatic environment for up to 10 yrs.  This endangers the species living in these environments and thus the entire ecosystem of which we, humans, are a part.

There are two primary concerns associated with cigarette butts in bodies of water: 1) the chemicals can leach into the water, and can be absorbed through the skin and tissues of the species exposed to them; and 2) dietary exposure, where species like bottom feeders physically eat the cigarette butt, or the microfibers, allowing the chemicals to setup shop in the body tissues.  In both instances, these chemicals greatly effect the ecosystem by endangering the health of exposed species, and can be relayed up the food chain, eventually reaching humans.  Consumption of cigarette butts has actually been a common form of poisoning in pets and children for decades.  Can you imagine what such a dose of chemicals would do to small aquatic species, those supporting the food chain?   

The chemicals released from cigarette butt waste have been proven to have detrimental effects on the health & death rates, DNA, development as well as behaviour of a number of aquatic species, including both freshwater and marine fish (specifically teleosts for those up on their taxonomy).  These toxic effects can start to develop quickly with as little as a single exposure event to one cigarette butt soaked in 1 L of water, a 1:1 ratio, for as few as 48 hours.  As cigarette butts and rain runoff continue to carry tobacco industry chemicals into aquatic environments, the concentration of these toxins increases becoming an ever-growing threat.

Sadly, the cigarette butt filter, the most common form of litter, delivers a triple whammy to the environment.  It is not biodegradable and persists in the environment for an incredibly long time, it is fragmented and easily consumed both actively and passively by aquatic species, and to make matters worse, it is imbibed with harmful chemicals.  A trifecta of environmental nightmares.

So, what can you do?  If you are a smoker, please dispose of your cigarette butts responsibly, or choose filterless cigarettes, or even a pipe.  Everyone can encourage and inform friends and neighbours of available options like disposal canisters provided by the city, or the more convenient pocket ashtray, which now vary greatly in size and design.  Currently it is estimated that disposal canisters are used <10% of the time, and approximately 1 million cigarette butts are littered on the streets of Vancouver everyday, it is time to raise awareness.  Educate your community about the hazards associated with cigarette butt litter, by sharing what you have read here.  Remind them that street drains wash directly into waterways, leading to streams, rivers, lakes and oceans.  Lastly, participate in beach cleanups and other local events targeting litter, thousands of cigarette butts are collected during these events and saved from the storm drain. 

 

 

Watch for Surfrider Vancouver events targeting cigarette butt litter on Eventbrite, and be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter to stay up-to-date with the Hold On to Your Butt (HOTYB) campaign.

Our next event targeting cigarette butt litter is our Top Secret Trash Mob taking place on Saturday, July 9th in Vancouver.  Head to Eventbrite to register (for free).

 

In Western countries, cigarette butts are the last socially acceptable form of litter. 

Let’s change that!

#holdontoyourbutt #HOTYB

 

 

** I would like to take a moment to acknowledge Pixabay for providing a fantastic free-to-use photo collection!