At a recent Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup on Woodbine Beach in Toronto, Swim Guide volunteers came face to face with the butt. Many butts in fact. In just one hour, spent in only one small section of the beach, the clean up volunteers filled a trash bag with cigarette butts.
It’s important to note that the cigarette filters we found on the beach were all picked up within a few paces of a garbage can.
Littering, in the not so distant past, used to be socially acceptable. People littered openly. To let the remnants of our takeout lunch fall to the grass in a park, or to watch someone toss a coffee cup out of a car window was no big deal.
But something happened. Thanks to education, slogan campaigns, and a change in attitudes littering has decreased over the last 40 years. The idea of littering (at least in front of others) now horrifies most people. And when people leave their trash behind it upsets us, maybe even enough to say something.
Except when it comes to cigarettes.
A startling 65% of cigarettes smoked every year in the US are dropped, flicked, or stomped out onto the ground. The global average of smoked cigarettes that are litter is estimated to be two-thirds. That’s the butt of 2 out of every 3 cigarettes smoked, tossed on the ground.
There is no single item in the WORLD that is littered with such abandon as cigarette butts. There are 5.6 trillion filtered cigarettes smoked annually and 4.5 trillion cigarettes are littered worldwide every year. That is some serious littering.
Cigarette butts are everywhere. Take a walk down any street, through any park, down any beach. The ground is covered with them. And the littering does not happen under the cover of the night. Smokers openly take their last puff and drop their butts to the ground, as unconcerned by their behaviour as the people who watch them do it.
Turns out the no-big-thing cigarette butt flick has sobering consequences.
Cigarettes and cigarette butts are consistently the number one item collected during beach and recreational area clean-ups, as well as during urban litter collection. In fact, they make up 35-50% of all litter collected.
Worse, an estimated 80% of butts on the ground find their way into our waterways.
There is an enormous body of research that shows what smoking does to our bodies, as well as to the bodies of the people who inhale second and third hand smoke. However, research on the impact all those smoked and tossed cigarettes has on our environment is brand new science.
What we do know, thanks to scientists working hard to find answers, is that cigarette butts leach toxins and threaten both salt and freshwater marine environments.
The cigarettes flicked onto the sidewalk by smokers on a coffee break at work, outside of restaurants, and waiting for a bus don’t stay put. These butts make their way into our waterways following wet weather events and snow melts affecting the marine environment. Spring thaw is a particularly notorious time for flushing mass amounts of littered butts into our waterways.
When a cigarette butt hits the water it starts to leach into the environment the assortment of toxins that gave them the nickname “cancer sticks;” over 4000 chemicals, 69 of which are known carcinogens, and many of which are poisonous.
What’s more, a cigarette filter can continue to leach toxins for over 10 years. Things like acetone, acetic acid, ammonia, arsenic, benzene, butane, cadmium,carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, hexamine, lead, naphthalene, methanol, nicotine, tar, toluene, the list of toxins and poisons goes on.
Pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, fungicides and rodenticides (it still goes on…)
A groundbreaking study conducted by San Diego State University on the effects of discarded cigarettes on marine life showed that one cigarette soaked in the water for 96 hours leached enough toxins to kill half of the fresh or saltwater fish exposed to it. The study is the first of its kind, and has spurred more research into the public health and environmental side effects cigarette butts have when they hit the water.
But it’s not just the toxins that are so worrisome. Cigarette filters, which are primarily made of plastic, are wreaking havoc on the marine environment. Cigarette butts and fragments have been found in the stomachs of marine life, and in addition to the exposure to toxins, the butts can cause blockages leading to starvation and death.
The butts are also adding considerable weight to the microplastic and microfibre pollution plaguing our seas. Plastic doesn’t biodegrade. It breaks down to smaller and smaller pieces, but it doesn’t ever disappear from the ecosystem.
Like research on the impact of cigarettes on the marine environment, microplastics research is also still budding. The full impact that consumption of and exposure to microplastics is having on aquatic environment is not yet known. There is, however, enough research to paint a very dire picture of what the continued and increased presence of microplastics means for the future of our fresh and marine waters. Considering the significant percentage that cigarette filters make up of plastic pollution, stopping cigarette litter is imperative to addressing the microplastics problem.
Addressing the plastic and toxic pollution the butts leave behind is so urgent that banning cigarette filters is now proposed by municipalities and states, such as California. Calls are also being made to have cigarettes labelled as toxic waste so that more serious rules would be put in place to prevent them from making their way into the environment.
Still, it’s hard to forget that the source of this problem is human behaviour. It is worth repeating that two thirds of all cigarettes smoked are littered. Starting October 1, 2015 France instigated a 68 Euro (76$) fine for smokers who drop their butts on the street. Similar laws, and bylaws, exist in cities around the world.
While littering behaviour was reduced by a number of activities, such as campaigns and education, and an ease in the proper disposal of trash, the real game changer lies with an individual’s own sense of responsibility for their cigarette litter.
85% of littering is the result of individual attitudes.
The solution is simple: stop throwing your cigarette butts on the ground. Stop ashing out on the beach. If you see someone flicking a butt, get mad. Because butts are a big, big deal.
Cigarette litter begets more cigarette litter. In other words, if there are butts on the ground smokers are more likely to follow suit and litter their butt.
When asked why they litter their cigarette butts, many smokers say they feel compelled to, stating: ‘What else am I going to do with them?’
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