Cigarette Butts, an Environmental Hazard?

These pictures.  These are the cigarette butts collected during 10 and 20 minute beach cleanups by the beach. 

It all happened July 2019. We were beyond excited to spend ten days in Da Nang, Vietnam.  I was expecting a very relaxing day close to the beach. To my surprise, this beach was full of cigarette butts, not a couple but a lot.  I was so sad to find this. As you would imagine, one of the days I started collecting them, not knowing if collecting them actually helped or not.  While I was collecting this disgusting and gross piece of rubbish Andre, my 5-year-old son, started a sad but revealing conversation… 

A: “Mom, what are you picking up?  What are these?   

E: These are the leftovers/remains of a cigarette.

A: But… aren’t cigarettes bad for you?  

E: Yes they are.

A:  So why do people smoke them even when they know they are bad for them? 

At that moment I wanted to just avoid the conversation and keep enjoying the beach, and I tried.  Without success. 

E: Do you want to make a sandcastle?  

A: Mommy…. So… why do people smoke them?  

It was a hard topic to explain to a 5 year old, so as we all do, I tried my best to explain why people make choices that negatively affect their health.  Trying really hard to focus on his favorite phrases “Different people like different things” and “We are all different, so we need to respect others choices.”  The conversation continued.  

A: So then, all these butts… where do they come from?  Did people throw them on the ground? 

E:  Well…. Yes! 


E:  I do not know their reason, we would need to find someone that smokes and ask them about their thinking and for them to explain why smokers would do it.  

A: That is gross, it is rubbish, and rubbish goes into the rubbish bin, right? 

E: Right!

A: I don’t get it?  

E: I don’t get it either. 

A: Ok so then can this be recycled?  Or would it stay on earth forever like plastic?  

E: I actually don’t know the answer to that…I will have to find out about that.   

So, there is where the motivation and the idea of this blog post came from!!

What are cigarette filters made of?

Most cigarette filters contain a core of cellulose acetate and two layers of wrapping that are made of paper and/or rayon. I had no clue what cellulose acetate and rayon were, so here are my findings.  Cellulose acetate is a polymer of glucose molecules that changed the motion-picture industry back in 1860 by making it possible to store images on a substance that didn’t have a tendency to burst into flames like the material used previously did.  Rayon is a material created from wood pulp. Though rayon is derived from natural materials, it requires certain chemicals, so it’s considered to be a semi-synthetic fabric. Conclusion, both are semi-synthetic materials. 

The following is quoted from a research paper from the New York State Department of Health, the Roswell Park Cancer Institute, and Cornell University. Click here for full article.

“Viewing the white face of the cigarette filter with the naked eye and compression of the filter column with the fingers would suggest that the filter is made of a sponge-like material. However, opening the cigarette filter, by cutting it lengthwise with a razor, reveals that it consists of a fibrous mass. Spreading apart the matrix reveals some of the more than 12 000 white fibers. Microscopically, these fibers are Y shaped and contain the delustrant titanium dioxide. The fibers are made of cellulose acetate, a synthetic plastic-like substance used commonly for photographic films. A plasticiser, triacetin (glycerol triacetate), is applied to bond the fibers.”

None of this sounds like a good combination with our environment.

How do cigarette filters affect the environment?

How many times have you seen a smoker dump a cigarette butt onto the ground while driving, walking or just sitting at a park? I do not know when it became a rule or an acceptable practice to do that.  We all know that cigarette butts are rubbish and as that, should be disposed of properly.  

Tossing a cigarette butt on the ground is one of the most accepted forms of littering, according to the World Health Organization. About two-thirds of butts are dumped irresponsibly — stubbed out on pavements or dropped into gutters, from where they are carried via storm drains to streams, rivers, and oceans.

As Andre said, “smoking is bad for people”, but do you actually know how much the butts affect the environment?   When a cigarette butt is tossed into the environment, it is not only plastic that the smoker is dumping, but also the nicotine, heavy metals, and many other chemicals. Not to mention the many more chemicals (40,000–100,000) that have been identified in cigarette smoke, some of which could potentially be retained in cigarette butts. This waste is made of nearly 95% microscopic-sized fibrous cellulose acetate. When tossed, all these chemicals are released into the environment depending on the conditions and chemical properties. Although cellulose acetate is a photodegradable polymer, it is not easily biodegradable. It may persist in the environment for more than ten years. Just imagine all these chemicals then get eaten by animals, sucked by babies at the beach or absorbed into the environment. YUCK!

It is important to note that when cellulose acetate products sit in the sun for long enough, the light energy from the sun that strikes them can begin to dissolve the cellulose acetate. This allows more molecules to be spread 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 chemical contaminants can get into soils and waterways, harm or kill living organisms, and generally degrade surrounding ecosystems.

I don’t even want to get into the other ways the environment is affected during the production of cigarettes, from the use of scarce arable land, the amount of water used for tobacco cultivation, the use of harmful chemicals on tobacco farms, deforestation, the carbon emissions from manufacture and distribution processes, the production of toxic waste and non biodegradable litter to mention some. (WHO. Tobacco and Its Environmental Impact: An Overview; World Health Organization: Geneva, 2017 .  Furthermore, throwing cigarette butts in the wrong places has been linked to numerous domestic and wildland fires with devastating results.

What is the best way to dispose of them?

The best way to dispose of cigarette butts is NOT to throw them on the ground or in the sand.  The responsible action would be to collect them in a container, away from the sun, then recycle them.  But, who recycles them? TerraCycle does!  I have not partnered up with them myself but it might be an interesting group to explore.  Here some background on who they are (the following text was taken from their web page):

TerraCycle was founded in 2001 by Tom Szaky, then a student at Princeton University, on a mission towards Eliminating the Idea of Waste®. From these humble beginnings TerraCycle has grown into the global leader in collecting and repurposing hard-to-recycle waste: operating in over 20 countries, engaging over 80 million people, and recycling billions of pieces of waste through various innovative platforms.TerraCycle works with Eliminating the Idea of Waste®by recycling the “non-recyclable.” Whether it’s coffee capsules from your home, pens from a school, or plastic gloves from a manufacturing facility, TerraCycle can collect and recycle almost any form of waste. They partner with individual collectors such as yourself, as well as major consumer product companies, retailers, manufacturers, municipalities, and small businesses across 20 different countries. With your help, they are able to divert millions of pounds of waste from landfills and incinerators each month. I have found that they are the only option to recycle cigarette butts to the regular public.” 

It was really encouraging to find someone around the world that is helping with the cigarette butt issue. 

Program accepted waste: Extinguished cigarettes, cigarette filters, loose tobacco pouches, outer plastic packaging, inner foil packaging, rolling paper, and ash.

Please note: We do not accept the paperboard packaging of a cigarette box. Instead, you may recycle this through your municipal recycling program.

Picture taken from TerraCycle web page

How can non-smokers help? 

  1. Spread the word about what cigarette butts do to our planet.
  2. Join or start cigarette butts cleanups in your nearby park or beach. 
  3. Join TerraCycle and start a Cigarette Butt recycling program at your home, office or community.  Learn more HERE
Picture taken from TerraCycle web page

 Did you know that the Ocean Conservancy has sponsored a beach cleanup every year since 1986. For 32 consecutive years, cigarette butts have been the single most collected item on the world’s beaches, with a total of more than 60 million collected over that time. That amounts to about one-third of all collected items and more than plastic wrappers, containers, bottle caps, eating utensils and bottles, combined.  It is time to raise awareness and help the planet. Take action and make a difference. I can, you can, we all can do it! 

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