“It’s the last remaining 'acceptable' form of littering. People are more likely to pick up their dog poop than cigarette butts.” -Tom Novotny, an epidemiologist at San Diego State University
“There's something about flicking that cigarette butt, It's so automatic."
- Cindy Zipf, Executive Director of Clean Ocean Action
So what's so bad about these little things? Cigarette filters are made of a plastic called cellulose acetate. When tossed into the environment, they dump not only that plastic, but also the nicotine, heavy metals, and many other chemicals they’ve absorbed into the surrounding environment.
Cigarette butts are the top plastic polluters, with an estimated two-thirds of the trillions of filters used each year tossed into the environment.
Plastic filters were invented in the 1950s in response to lung cancer fears. By the mid-1960s, researchers realized that the substances being filtered, like nicotine, were what made cigarettes satisfying, so manufacturers made filters less effective. Today 98 percent of cigarette filters are made of plastic fibers.
Filters can take years to degrade and, even as they do, they break down into tiny pieces called microplastics.
“One cigarette butt in a liter [of water] kills half the fish.”
- Tom Novotny
So, what's the solution?
While banning it all together seems so far away, we can take steps to reduce our pollution.
1. Education—educate smokers & nonsmokers about the need to dispose of waste properly. Signs, messages printed on packaging, personal messages to smokers, and presentations about the harmful impacts of cigarette litter will decrease some littering behavior. However, like any public education campaign, the educational message must be continual. A one-time educational effort will not result in long-term changes in behavior.If smokers and nonsmokers knew that cigarette butts contain toxins, and they cost us millions of dollars in fire-fighting and cleanup, we as a society would not tolerate this littering behavior.
2. Have a "no smoking" policy or allow smoking only in designated areas. More and more public beaches, parks, open-air shopping malls, and college campus are trying to concentrate cigarette butt litter by requiring smokers to use only designated areas. These areas should have ash receptacles, lighting, seating, and be convenient. Often the use of these designated smoking areas are promoted for public health reasons (secondhand smoke) and fire prevention, as well as a litter-control mechanism.
3. Provide ash receptacles at all entry/exit points of buildings, at bus stops, and other areas where people frequently need to discard their cigarettes. Once installed, these receptacles need to be monitored and maintained regularly; once smokers become accustomed to using these receptacles you may need to add more to keep up with the cigarette waste being properly discarded.Studies show that more ashtrays help.
4. Buy a pocket ashtray, if you must smoke. Many types of pocket ashtrays are on the market. Some are made of foil and are disposable, while others are made of plastics or metals, and can be used for years.
5. Enforce litter laws. Cigarette butts are litter, yet rarely do smokers get ticketed for littering. The law enforcement solution to litter is difficult, however, as many taxpayers would like to see law enforcement personnel spend their time on more meaningful work.
If you know someone who smokes, don't hesitate to educate them on the matter. Communication and education is key to making an impact.