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Cigarette butts contaminate our planet’s water and soil and are a threat to animals and plants

As an internist and oncologist physician, I could tell you so much about the negative impacts of cigarette  smoking on human health. But that is not what this post is about, so I’ll just say that if you smoke, I know it is incredibly difficult to quit this addiction, and it is easier said than done, but it is literally a matter of life and death for you and those close to you. Six million people die each year because of cigarette smoke and this is increasing, with 8 million expected to die by 2030! If you are more concerned about the planet than your own health, the information you are going to read next might just be the last straw that pushes you to finally and permanently quit. 

The magnitude of the problem

Now that I got that out of the way, we can move on to the focus of this blog post, which is the environmental impact of cigarette butts, also known as tobacco product waste (TPW). Because we are oblivious regarding the consequences of TPW, discarding cigarette butts on the ground became more socially acceptable than other littering. And since the increase in bans on indoor smoking, studies show there has been a 40% increase in outdoor TPW. In fact today, 2 out of 3 smoked cigarettes are discarded on the ground

They are, after all, small little things that give the impression of being harmless. With their camouflage color design, I had become blind to seeing them around. But after I educated myself on the consequences of TPW, I started noticing them everywhere! And I can see where they like to concentrate: around the public transportation stops, in the surroundings of park benches, and even right next to the garbage cans. This is not surprising, knowing that cigarette butts are the number one discarded litter in the world, with 135 Million pounds of them every year in the US alone, which is equivalent to half a pound of cigarette butts per person. And this is despite the decrease in the incidence of smoking in the US.  Sadly, in many developing countries, smoking is on the rise. The estimated discarded waste from global cigarette consumption is anywhere between 340–680 million kg per year.  

Waste impact 

These numbers are very alarming considering that, despite what most people believe, cigarette butts are NOT biodegradable. They cannot be decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms, because they are made of a plastic material called Cellulose acetate and cellulose acetate can take 2-10 years to biodegrade, depending on the environment where it is discarded. 

Chemical contamination 

All of that non-biodegradable waste is terrible for our planet, but believe it or not, that is not the main problem… these little wretched things are packed full of chemicals that are harmful to living organisms. Cigarette butts have at least 50 known human carcinogens. Many of these cigarette butts have been found in the stomachs of land and sea animals that mistake them for food. Littered TPW gets washed away by the rain and ends up in the streams, rivers, lakes and oceans, releasing all of these toxins slowly. Studies have shown that harmful chemicals such as nicotine, arsenic, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heavy metals leach from discarded TPW and kill planktonic animals and fish. Only one cigarette butt submerged in one liter of water for 48hrs is enough to kill fish. We still don’t know the long term consequences of all of this TPW in our planet’s water, but research is now being done to answer this question. However, based on the long term consequences we have seen on human health with these chemicals, we can expect it won’t be good news. But, animals are not the only living organisms affected by discarded cigarette butt contamination. A study showed that when cigarette butts fall to the ground and mix with the soil, plants growing there are shorter in length and have reduced germination success.  

The burden is on the people, not the industry

If you have ever participated in the clean-up activities in your cities and beaches, you have been witness to the fact that cigarette butts are 30–40% of all items picked up in coastal and urban clean-ups around the world. Unfortunately, the responsibility for cleaning up this disgusting mess has been left to citizen advocacy groups, local communities and governments using taxpayer funding, which are limited resources, especially when we are talking about the countries where smoking is on the rise. The financial burden of this is huge, and the cigarette industry is not being held accountable for it. 

The cause of fires

One more important component that we have to mention and take into consideration is that discarded cigarette butts that are not properly extinguished cause many fires around the world. According to the US National Fire Protection Association, between 2012-2016 smoking-caused home fires killed 590 people per year and caused $476 million in damage per year. Although smoking-caused wildfires have declined in frequency due to self-extinguishing cigarettes (now mandatory in all states), cigarette butts are still the cause of some of the wildfires, and these have the potential to completely destroy and eliminate wildlife in vulnerable forest areas and are an increasing threat in our heating planet.   

So… Cigarette smoking is a destructive addiction that has devastating consequences from every angle you look at it. The effects on human health are important to understand, but we also have to educate ourselves and everyone we can on the environmental consequences of littered cigarette butts. 

Here’s what this butterfly move entails: 

  • If you smoke, make sure you buy yourself a portable ashtray to discard your waste when you don’t have access to a trash can. 
  • Pick up all of the cigarette butts that cross your path, so they don’t end up in our planet’s water or ingested by animals. 
  • Ways to improve the problem are being invented. Terracycle is a company that has partnered with some cities to start recycling cigarette butts. Also, some researchers have found ways to turn them into bricks… so research and support local solutions to the problem that might be available to you. 

Resources for more info:

https://www.who.int/tobacco/publications/environmental-impact-overview/en/

https://no-smoke.org/environmental-impact-of-cigarette-butts/

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