Cigarette Butts are The World’s Most Littered Plastic Item. Are They Biodegradable?

Are cigarette butts biodegradable? Sadly, no.
Photo: CC0 Public Domain / Unsplash – Brian Yurasits

Cigarette butts are one of the most common forms of litter. They pollute streets, beaches, and waterways. But are cigarette butts biodegradable? And how badly do they harm the environment? Here’s the shocking truth.

Cigarette butts may be small, but they pose a deadly environmental threat. They have remained in the shadows during pollution debates, hiding behind the usual suspects like plastic straws, plastic bags, and coffee cups. But the truth is, these tiny items of litter have a massive impact on the health of the planet.

We think this issue needs more attention. People need to be educated on the toxic impact of cigarette butt littering, the huge problem with cigarette butts’ biodegradability, and on the steps they can take to reduce this harmful habit.

The World’s Most Littered Plastic Item

Cigarettes are the most littered item in the world. This is because cigarette butts seem to be considered the last ‘socially acceptable’ item of litter.

Globally, around 4.5 trillion cigarettes are littered every year, with around 38 percent of all litter collection consisting of cigarette butts alone. Shockingly, around 75 percent of smokers admit to throwing their cigarette butts out of car windows and onto the ground.

cigarette butts: the world's most littered plastic item
Cigarette butts are the world’s most littered plastic item. (Photo: CC0 Public Domain / Unsplash – Brian Yurasits)

In the US, cigarette butts are reported as the most collected item in beach clean-ups. Over 1 million cigarette butts are collected every year from beaches. Not to mention butts collected along roadsides and streets, which can make up to 50 percent of an entire litter haul.

Read on: Microplastics in the Oceans: These 6 Surprising Things are Causing Massive Microplastic Pollution

Are Cigarette Butts Biodegradable?

The short and simple answer is no. Cigarette butts are the filter of the cigarette, which is mainly made from cellulose acetate. a.k.a. plastic fibers.

Although the filter may break down over time, the plastics remain in the environment as microplastics. These are then more easily dispersed throughout the natural environment by wind or in waterways, and are far less visible.

Because cigarette butts are not biodegradable, the filters take a very long time to decompose: up to ten years. So these little everyday items are actually making a massive global environmental impact.

Cigarette Butts Create Toxic Waste

Cigarette butts are toxic. The used filters contain hazardous compounds such as lead, nicotine, arsenic, copper, and several harmful polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). After being littered, the toxins from the butts make their way easily into waterways, plants, and soils.

Experiments have found that the toxins from filters of cigarettes can be deadly for aquatic life. In fact, cigarette butts are the ocean’s biggest plastic contaminant. Just one butt soaked in a litre of water for 4 days is able to kill off half the fish exposed to that water. Tests have also found that they can inhibit the growth of plants. Not to mention their direct and harmful consumption by animals, thinking they are food. And because cigarette butts are not biodegradable, each one can pose a risk for a long time.

Tips on How to Prevent Cigarette Littering

The most straightforward solution to preventing cigarette butt littering is to reduce the amount of cigarettes being smoked. However, we understand this is easier said than done for some people. So here are some suggestions to help you reduce your impact on the environment while still smoking:

  • Pocket ashtrays. ´You can store your butts in a small pocket ashtray** while you are out and about, to later dispose of properly. Or what about a small screw-top jar from your kitchen cupboard? Completes exactly the same job and is totally free.
  • Social pressure. The reason cigarette butts remain the largest plastic polluter in terms of littering is because it is still seen as socially acceptable. As humans, we naturally follow the crowd. So by educating people on the environmental dangers of littering cigarette butts, and pressuring them to stop, we will see visible results.
Cigarette butts are toxic waste. They need to be disposed of properly.
Cigarette butts are toxic waste. If you can’t quit smoking, make sure you always dispose of your filters the right way. (Photo: CC0 Public Domain / Unsplash –Pawel Czerwinski)
  • Biodegradable filters. As of yet, there are no commercially available biodegradable cigarette filters. Not enough pressure has been put on companies to do so. Laws and new social standards need to be implemented to put legislative and public pressure on cigarette companies to improve the production of their filters and help combat this worldwide littering problem.
  • Anti-littering messages. Unfortunately, there is some competition for space on cigarette packages, as messages of health issues take up most of the packaging. Anti-littering messages should also be displayed on public ashtrays and in areas where smokers gather.
  • Buying cigarettes without filters. Rumour has it filters are better for your health because they make smoking safer. This is by no means true. So next time you buy your pack, you could try to avoid brands with filters all together. But remember: the only way you and the environment can be safe from the dangers of smoking, is to quit.

Important Information regarding Health-related Topics.

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