Everywhere you go you can’t fail to see cigarette butts, a small, but ever present piece of litter. This incidental item is a triple threat for our environment:

1. It’s plastic
2. It’s toxic
3. It’s litter

Cigarette butts on the floor

More cigarette butts are dropped each year than there are stars in our galaxy
Credit: @rubbishwalks

 

Plastic

Plastic? Cigarette butts are plastic?! Yep! Cigarette butts are 98% plastic fibres, made from a plastic called cellulose acetate. Once discarded, they take 18 months to 10 years to decompose. They don’t breakdown in a biodegradable way either. Instead they break down in our waterways and oceans into microfibres, to be consumed and ingested by marine creatures large and small. People are slowly waking up to the fact that items from sanitary products, to wet wipes and cigarette butts are all single-use plastic items that are finding their way into our oceans in their trillions.

 

Toxic

As if that’s not bad enough, we then have the toxins. Toxic chemicals and carcinogens trapped in each and every filter that leach out into the environment and our oceans. These toxins are poisoning organisms and creatures that come into contact with them or ingest them. Each butt contains over 165 chemicals. Arsenic, lead, acetone, formaldehyde and benzo pyrene to name but a few of a long and quite horrifying list.

 

Litter

Cigarette butts are LITTER – no ifs, not butts (excuse the pun!). Its estimated 4.95 trillion filtered cigarettes are littered each year worldwide. Therefore, it’ll come as no surprise that cigarettes are the most littered item on Earth. Making up 30-40% of all litter collected in international beach and urban cleanups. With each and every cigarette butt being toxic, why is it so socially acceptable to just drop them where ever you are? Down storm drains and gutters, in the middle of the sidewalk on the way to work, on the side of a mountain whilst trekking to a breath taking view point, or to push them into the sand whilst relaxing at the beach. How many times have we all witnessed this, or perhaps done it ourselves?

With the implementation of smoking bans in many public places, there simply aren’t as many public ashtrays available as there used to be. This has no doubt led to the number of littered butts increasing, despite the fact that smoker numbers are decreasing.

Once that butt gets casually flicked onto the street, nature trail, or buried on the beach, it typically gets carried by the wind, rain or tide into our water supplies and into our oceans. The toxic chemicals contained within each butt then leach out into the surrounding aquatic ecosystems, threatening the quality of the water and many aquatic lifeforms. Cigarette butts may seem small and trivial, but with the numbers being littered every year, the toxic chemicals add up!

 

Take Action

So what can we do as individuals? The best way to educate the public about this serious environmental problem is to start with people you know. If someone you know litters their cigarettes, just point them to this blog, or any number of websites where they can read the facts for themselves. A few initiatives for you to check out for inspiration are ‘Bin the Butt‘ by Keep Britain Tidy and ‘Hold on to Your Butt‘ by The Surfrider Foundation.

Shows cigarette butts floating in the ocean with marine life after being dropped down a drain

#binthebutt campaign shot

Cigarette butt cleanups

Do a butt cleanup! Whether it’s on your street, around a popular smoking area, on the beach, or at the entrance to the beach – this unfortunately seems to be a favourite spot for smoker to flick their butts. Then post it to your/local community Instagram/Twitter/Facebook pages. Draw attention to the issue! Keep an eye on our blog for tips and hints for running cleanups

Hand sorting cigarette butts

Sorting collected cigarette butts

Citizen science survey

We did our own mini citizen science survey one weekend at a popular beach here in Canggu, Bali. One of our Ocean Mimic beach cleanup leaders, together with a father and son team from Sweden, selected a 100m stretch of beach where there are beach bars, sun loungers, bean bags and surf shacks. Their mission was cigarette butts. Using a discarded 1.5L single-use water bottle, they collected 582 cigarette butts in an hour from approximately 300m square of beach. That’s an average of just under 2 cigarette butts per metre, which is similar to other citizen science surveys. The majority of the discarded and semi-buried butts were within 1m of the shacks lining the beach. The beach is 1.5km long. Do the math and you soon start to realise the enormity of the problem of cigarette butt litter. This same area is cleaned EVERY week.

bottle full of cigarette butts

582 cigarette butts collected in just 1 hour

Portable ashtrays

Get yourself some portable, reusable pocket ashtrays and give them to your family or friends. Strike up a friendly, non-challenging conversation with a stranger – perhaps this may be easier if you used to smoke or are a smoker yourself and you can relate to the issue of what to do with your butt when there are no ashtrays in sight.

Make butts the new plastic straws!

It’s time to shake things up and get cigarette butt littering into the public eye. Look how attitudes to plastic straws have changed. We’re refusing them, we’re purchasing non-plastic alternatives, businesses are switching to sustainable options and governments are finally listening by starting to ban them.
We need to make cigarette butts the new plastic straws and kick this pain-in-the-butt outta town!

 

Sources:

Cigwaste.org
Beachapedia.org
Cigarettelitter.org
Truthinitiative.org
ncbi.nlm.nih.gov