Trillions of cigarette butts are thrown into the environment every year, where they release nicotine and heavy metals before turning into microplastic pollution.
Cigarette filter are “the last acceptable form of waste,” but there are solutions that can help our health and planet.
Cigarette Butts Problem
Smokers around the world buy around 6.5 trillion cigarettes every year. That means 18 billion every day. While most of the innards and wrapping paper are destroyed when inhaled, not all of them burn.
Trillions of cigarette filters – also known as cigarette butts or cigarette ends – are left; only one third is estimated to make them trash. The rest are casually thrown into the street or out the window.
Cigarette filters are made of a plastic called cellulose acetate. When thrown into the environment, they not only throw away the plastic, but also nicotine, heavy metals, and many other chemicals that they absorb into the surrounding environment.
A recent study found that cigarette butts inhibit plant growth. They also routinely enter the waterways and finally aim at the ocean.
Zipf said cigarette butts had long been at or near the top of the list of items found by his organization during beach cleaning.
The billions more left in the water are dangerous for marine animals, which can eat them, he said.
“This is very pervasive,” Zipf said, from the use of e-cigarettes or vape and the accompanying plastic waste. “It’s just a different form of the same thing.”
From Tobacco to Cigarette Butts Plastic
But the invention of the cigarette rolling machine at the end of this century – which drastically increased its production – started smoking in its popularity.
The 20th century witnessed a smoking explosion. In 1900 American adults smoked an average of 54 cigarettes per year.
By 1960, that number had risen to more than 4,000. For most of that period, cigarette filters did not exist. But, slowly, the health effects of smoking became very clear.
Beginning in the late 1930s, scientists began to make connections between smoking and public health risks. In 1957, the General Surgeon formally declared a causal link between smoking and lung cancer.
When public concern rises, tobacco companies look for solutions, one of which is the cigarette filter.
“There have been all efforts to reduce tar and nicotine,” said Tom Novotny, an epidemiologist at San Diego State University who was one of the first to examine the environmental impact of cigarettes.
By the end of the 1950s, filter cigarette sales had surpassed the sale of filterless cigarettes.Tobacco companies, Novotny said, tried a variety of different filter materials, such as cotton, charcoal, and food flour, before landing on a plastic fiber called cellulose acetate, which remains the current polymer of choice.
“There are still widespread misconceptions about what filters are made of,” Novotny said. “Many smokers think it’s biodegradable.”
Filters can take years to degrade and, even as they do, break down into small pieces of plastic, called microplastics, which are an increasing danger in waterways and oceans.
Cigarette butts also carry many toxic substances that are harmful to marine life nearby, a threat that was tested by Novotny in the laboratory.
“One cigarette butt in one liter [of water],” he said of his findings, “kills half the fish population.