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!

2015: A year in review

A blog post by Rachel McGovern

Volunteer-based Surfrider Foundation Vancouver kept busy in 2015 with a number of campaigns including: Protect Where You Play, Rise Above Plastics, Ban the Bead, and Hold onto Your Butt.  Of these specialized and worthy campaigns, Surfrider is probably most well-known for its beach cleanups, which fall under the umbrella of Rise Above Plastics and Protect Where You Play.  In 2015, the Vancouver chapter hosted 12 successful beach cleanups.  In addition, the Ban the Bead campaign picked up a lot of momentum leading to government action and an investigation into microbeads led by Environment Canada.  2015 also marked the growth of the Hold onto Your Butts campaign in Vancouver, focused on reducing cigarette butt litter by raising awareness.  In fact, #holdontoyourbutt will be brought to the forefront this month, stay tuned.

Beach Cleanups

Surfrider Foundation Vancouver has had great success in organizing volunteers for beach cleanups, and 2015 was no exception. As you may know, the Surfrider team has been hosting monthly local beach cleanups, inviting volunteers to grab a bucket, grab a garbage picker-upper and join them at a designated Vancouver beach to pick up garbage strewn about, whether by human, animal or tide.

At each Surfrider beach cleanup, a research team of volunteers collect data about the garbage found on Vancouver beaches.  In 2015, the research team collected, sorted, counted and weighed 31 pounds of garbage during these beach cleanups.  But, why go through all the trouble of sorting and counting all of that garbage?  

Click on the image to see an interactive map that shows how much garbage we've collected from these local beaches!

Click on the image to see an interactive map that shows how much garbage we've collected from these local beaches!

Cleanup Research: The Technical Stuff, If You’re Curious

The research team starts by marking a dedicated area to use as a representative sample of the beach.  The garbage collected in this area can be used to make general conclusions about the garbage found on the entire beach, even if the entire beach wasn’t cleaned.  Using GPS coordinates and a measuring tape the research team focuses on a 100m stretch of “tidal zone”, that is the area of the beach found underwater at high tide and exposed during low tide.  

This tidal zone is where debris floating in the ocean is deposited on the beach and where litter can be picked up and swept into the ocean, all by the moving tide.  

The garbage collected in this section of beach is sorted into categories based on the material they are made of and then counted and weighed.  This process enables Surfrider Vancouver to make inferences about the amount and types of garbage being deposited on the beaches.  This information can then be used to help support campaigns, or when approaching municipalities, or when raising awareness to a specific local problem like cigarette butt accumulation on beaches.  

For the record, the methods used for data collection are standardized research procedures maintained by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), an American scientific agency.

76% of that garbage consisted of cigarette butts & plastic! 

Styrofoam, metal and wood/paper products accounted for an additional 18% of garbage collected in 2015.

Though an impressive amount of garbage, this does not include all of the garbage collected by volunteers at the 2015 beach cleanups.  In fact, volunteers collected buckets full of garbage at each cleanup!  These numbers only represent the research sample collected, however, it does reflect the distribution of garbage types collected from Vancouver  beaches.  The most prevalent types of garbage collected have consistently been cigarette butts and plastics!  Coincidentally, of the most dangerous types of garbage for marine wildlife.

During the course of the 2015 calendar year, specific plastic items were consistently collected. These items included: bottle caps and other hard plastics, food film and wrappers, as well as straws.  During the summer months, particularly July, there was an increased number of cigarette butts, plastic cups, plastic utensils and plastic take-out containers collected at local beaches, as one might have predicted.  The amount of garbage collected did not vary greatly from month-to-month, with the exception of January and July, which accounted for 31% and 21% of the total amount of garbage collected for analysis in 2015, respectively.

TELUS World of Science

After collecting all of this great data, it was time to spread the knowledge. A set of infographics about pollution on local beaches designed by Yee Tonrungroj spent the entire summer on display at the TELUS World of science. Also, a few of our volunteers led an interactive exhibition that imitated the research protocol. Children were asked to use pickers in order to retrieve colorful blocks from a sandpit, then tally and weigh them. This served as a kindle for dialogue regarding pollution in Vancouver and what we can do about it, no matter our age.


Hold on to Your Butt (#holdontoyourbutt)

Given the number of cigarette butts collected at each beach, all year long, the Hold on to Your Butt campaign (#holdontoyourbutt) is gaining momentum. It even caught the attention of CBC, which followed with a TV interview with Nataliya Volikhovska, the Surfrider Vancouver secretary and campaign lead. I am happy to report, the number of cigarette butts collected in 2015 was only 40% of what it was in 2014!

Ban the Bead  (#banthebead)

Ban the Bead is a campaign launched by Surfrider Vancouver in June 2014, targeting the use of microbeads in home and personal care cleaning products, including toothpaste, facial scrubs, laundry detergents and dish detergents.  Microbeads are small plastic beads often described as being “exfoliants” and said to improve their cleaning power of these products.  The use of microbeads in these products is unnecessary.  Besides, there are many natural, non-plastic exfoliants like ground nut shells, oatmeal, coffee grounds and even baking soda.

Microbeads measure less than 1mm in diameter, and due to their size they are a particularly dangerous plastic as they easily pass through filtration systems used in wastewater management.  As such, these tiny plastic beads are being deposited in waterways and bodies of water across Canada.  Even more daunting is the fact that the plastic used in these beads is projected to last more than 10,000 years! 

Photo taken from: &nbsp;“Microbeads a macro problem says Vancouver environmental group”, CBC News. &nbsp;Accessed online March 27, &nbsp; 2016.&nbsp;

Photo taken from:  “Microbeads a macro problem says Vancouver environmental group”, CBC News.  Accessed online March 27,   2016. 

The major issue is the entry of these microbeads into the food chain!  Small water-dwelling animals surviving on small, organic particulate in the water easily confuse microbeads as food. This poses a serious health threat to all animals in the foodchain, from some of the smallest organisms to humans. 

2015 was a momentous year for the Ban the Bead campaign.  In February, the federal NDP proposed that microbeads be considered toxic, and on March 24, the House of Commons unanimously passed a resolution to add microbeads to Canada’s list of Toxic Substances.  In addition, Environment Canada was mandated to complete a review on microbeads, a review that is in its final stages.  Here is a link to their findings posted in July. In the remaining months of 2015 and into early 2016, Surfrider encouraged the general public to contact their MPs and bring to parliament their views on banning the microbead.  In early 2016, Surfrider made the news again when Surfrider Vancouver Chair, Matthew Unger, was interviewed by CBC and The Province newspaper to talk about Ban the Bead. 

Thanks to our efforts, 609 concerned citizens and Surfrider Volunteers sent their letters to urge Environment Canada to ban the bead!

Thanks to our efforts, 609 concerned citizens and Surfrider Volunteers sent their letters to urge Environment Canada to ban the bead!

Other news from 2015

We are quickly approaching the one-year anniversary of the grievous English Bay Oil Spill, which occurred in April of 2015.  A matter of days after, Surfrider Vancouver partnered with the Kitsilano Yacht Club to facilitate a public information session with local government and the spill response teams.

The spill was of bunker fuel, which is highly toxic to humans, animals and plants.  A number of shortcomings in the oil spill response were identified, and members of Surfrider Vancouver called on Environment Canada and the BC Ministry of Environment to use this incident as a “fire drill” with hopes of improvement for the future in both response to the spill and communication with the public.

Despite the spill, a cleanup for the month of April was hosted, however, volunteers were not allowed on the beach for health and safety reasons.  Instead, the cleanup was directed to the park area at Kitsilano Beach.

So, as you can see 2015 was a very busy year!  Surfrider Vancouver is working hard to keep Vancouver beaches and water clean for the safety and enjoyment of all. Join us again this year! Like our Facebook Page, follow us on Twitter and Instagram, and be sure to check EventBrite for upcoming beach cleanups and other ways to become involved.

Science World

Surfrider @ Science World, Summer 2015

We're exciting to be partnering with Science World, Patagonia on West 4th and Vancity Theatre for Vancouver's first World Oceans Week with some cool, creative activities and events!

In the Entrance Gallery: three infographic posters designed by Surfrider Volunteer Yee Tongrungroj, highlighting three of our campaigns: Protect Where You Play, Hold On To Your Butts, and Ban the Bead. The artist will be on-site June 13, starting at 2:30pm.

Outdoor Exhibit Area, Sat June 6 and Sat June 13, 11am - 4pm: a mini beach transect activity/exhibit for kids - highlights how we do research at transects, and what kinds of garbage we find on Vancouver's beaches. Surfrider volunteers on site to interpret this exhibit and talk with visitors. The mini transect might appear as a pop-up exhibit during the week June 6-13 as our volunteers have time. Sign up to volunteer here!

Surfrider-produced videos (from our local and other chapters) playing on monitors in the museum.

Kits Beach Cleanup: Join us on Saturday, June 6 from 11am - 1pm as we clean Kits Beach from the pool to the Burrard St Bridge. We will be having a contest for the most cigarette butts collected and counted with bragging rights and a shout out over our social media. For safety reasons we ask that you preregister on Eventbrite.

World Ocean's Day Volunteer Social: Our friends over at Sunset Grill have a special on for all Surfrider volunteers, members and friends from 1-3pm on Saturday, June 6. Come down and get to know the Surfrider Vancouver team.

Bag It & Endless Summer Double Header: $16 for a documentary and timeless surf film here!

Press Release : Ban the Bead


*Press conference scheduled in an effort to eliminate the sale of hazardous microplastics*

VANCOUVER, B.C., July 17, 2014 – Surfrider Foundation Vancouver (SFV) along with Vancouver MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert, will be holding a press conference at 11am on Wednesday, July 23 to raise awareness of the devastating effects of microbeads. Joining Spencer Chandra Herbert will be Matthew Unger, ocean enthusiast and Chair of SFV. A weather dependant advisory will be sent out to confirm whether the conference will take place on the corner of Denman and Beach Avenue beside Cactus Club. Unger explains that the issue cannot be ignored, “Microbeads show up in our marine environment as they are exfoliating ingredients in many beauty care products (face wash, toothpaste and body wash) and get washed down the drain during use. Microbeads pass through wastewater and sewage treatment plants and enter the ocean where they are ingested by marine life. The toxins and plastic particles make their way back up the food chain and onto our dinner plates. This is a dangerous cycle that will affect human health.” Surfrider’s “Rise Above Plastics” program aims to reduce the impacts of plastic pollution in the marine environment. The foundation’s goal is to work with Herbert to push for a policy change to ban the sale and use of microbeads in Canada – starting with the beautiful province of British Columbia leading the charge. “Europe already has these plastics banned and the U.S. is working on this,” notes Unger. “It’s time Canada seriously considers how these micro beads are effecting our oceans, and us.”

About Surfrider

Surfrider Foundation is a global environmental non-profit organization dedicated to the protection and enjoyment of oceans, waves and beaches. Our Vancouver chapter is 100% volunteer run by everyday people like you, and works to ensure the health of our oceans for generations to come.

Contact Information

Matthew Unger
Chair, Surfrider Foundation Vancouver
604 512 1592



VANCOUVER, B.C., July 21, 2014 – Surfrider Foundation Vancouver along with Vancouver MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert invite you to a press conference scheduled in effort to eliminate hazardous microplastics from our oceans.

Date: Wednesday, July 23, 2014
Time: 11 a.m.
Location: The corner of Denman and Beach beside Cactus Club
Vancouver, B.C.

Speakers: Vancouver MLA, Spencer Chandra Herbert
Chair of Surfrider Foundation Vancouver, Matthew Unger

Media kits will be available on site.
Participants will be available for interviews following the event.

About Surfrider

Surfrider Foundation is a global environmental non-profit organization dedicated to the protection and enjoyment of oceans, waves and beaches. Our Vancouver chapter is 100% volunteer run by everyday people like you, and works to ensure the health of our oceans for generations to come.

Contact Information
Matthew Unger
Chair, Surfrider Foundation Vancouver
604 512 1592