The Environmental Impact Of Discarded Cigarettes.


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Dear EarthTalk: Has anyone ever studied the environmental impact of discarded cigarettes? I’m constantly appalled at the number of drivers I see pitching their butts out their car windows.

It’s true that littered cigarette butts are a public nuisance, and not just for aesthetic reasons. The filters on cigarettes, four fifths of all cigarettes have them, are made of cellulose acetate, a form of plastic that is very slow to degrade in the environment. A typical cigarette butt can take anywhere from 18 months to 10 years to decompose, depending on environmental conditions.

But beyond the plastic, these filters, which are on cigarettes in the first place to absorb contaminants to prevent them from going into the lungs, contain trace amounts of toxins like cadmium, arsenic and lead. Thus when smokers discard their butts improperly, out the car window or off the end of a pier or onto the sidewalk below, they are essentially tossing these substances willy-nilly into the environment.

Studies done by Johns Hopkins University, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and even the tobacco industry itself show that these contaminants can get into soils and waterways, harm or kill living organisms and generally degrade surrounding ecosystems.

While individual discarded cigarette butts may be small, they add up to a huge problem. Some 5.5 trillion cigarettes are consumed worldwide each year. The non-profit Keep America Beautiful reports that cigarette butts constitute as much as one-third of all litter nationwide when measured by the number of discarded items, not volume. According to the Ocean Conservancy, a non-profit that advocates for stronger protection of marine ecosystems, cigarette butts are the most commonly littered item found on America’s salt and fresh water beaches according to feedback received by hundreds of thousands of volunteers taking part in the group’s annual Coastal Clean-up event.

While the tobacco industry may have its hands full just trying to stay afloat in the maelstrom of ongoing bad publicity, critics say it should be doing more to prevent cigarette butt litter. “Just as beverage manufacturers contribute to anti-litter campaigns, and have invested in public education on litter issues, so too should the tobacco industry,” says Kathleen Register, founder and executive director of Clean Virginia Waterways, a non-profit that has spearheaded the fight against cigarette butt litter in the mid-Atlantic region of the U.S. She adds that cigarette manufacturers “need to take an active and responsible role in educating smokers about this issue and devote resources to the cleanup of cigarette litter.”

Register suggests a number of strategies including putting anti-litter messages on all cigarette packaging and advertisements, distributing small, free portable ashtrays, and placing and maintaining outdoor ashtrays in areas where smokers congregate. She also suggests putting an extra tax on cigarette sales, with proceeds going toward anti-litter education efforts and to defray the costs of cleaning up butts. “Picking up littered cigarette butts costs schools, businesses and park agencies money,” she says. “By taxing smokers for anti-litter educational efforts, some of the costs of cleaning up cigarette butts will shift onto smokers.” One way or another, Register hopes, smokers will learn that the Earth is not one giant ashtray.

CONTACTS: CDC,; Clean Virginia Waterways,

SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; Read past columns at: EarthTalk is now a book! Details and order information at:

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  1. Being I am a smoker I do agree with your post and we should be making more of an effort to keep butts off the streets. But being that I do have a perspective from the other side of the fence here are some thoughts:
    – adding an additional tax on cigarettes isn’t going to decrease the amount people smoke its going to make contraband or smuggled smokes more popular (in some areas this is already a significant problem)
    – anti-litter campaigns, I believe that this is a briliant idea regarless of it’s targeting smokers or not. People litter way too much and take it for granted
    – The ashtray issue – while most smokers who litter really don’t give the fact they’re dropping their butts on the ground a second thought there is another group that ashes their butts on the ground and leaves them because the ashtrays are not available. Depending on where you live it is a black mark to be a smoker and while a significant portion of the population smokes often times we’re vilified. With no ashtray in sight the option becomes carrying around a ashed out smoke or just leaving it on the ground. If you’re standing beside a garbage can this is a mute point but when you’re walking somewhere convenience will win.

    Personally I try to smoke in designated areas as to not bother non smokers, I use ashtrays when they’re available and make at least some effor if they’re not but condeming anyone for littering when there are no other alternatives is not a problem of education but one of municipal infrastructure, which is sadly sometimes the case.

  2. When I finish a soda, and there isn’t a trash can around, I carry the empty with me until I find a place to dispose of the bottle. Taking your stance, I should look around for a trash can, upon not finding one, it then becomes ok to just toss it on the ground.

    A lot of people I’ve spoken to were under the impression that the filters were not plastic and were biodegradable.

  3. Here’s what my son had to say to his fellow students at Oberlin College about the Environmental Effects of Cigarettes – Pub Nov 13, 2009

    Musings on the Environmental Effects of Cigarettes
    by ALEX POSA

    I”™m guessing the vast majority of Obies worry about global warming and would consider themselves environmentalists to some extent. A large portion of Oberlin students also smoke. I don”™t have any statistics, as I started this article on Wednesday and didn”™t want to take the time or energy to create and conduct a scientifically valid survey.

    Unfortunately, government anti-smoking campaigns have focused on the health effects of smoking but have ignored its detrimental effects on the environment. I did find a South Australia website called “Smoke Free Kids” that has a section on the environmental impacts of tobacco cultivation and manufacturing. This was the only government-run site I found on the topic that was easily accessible and readable.

    Tobacco farming is pesticide- and nutrient-intensive, and tobacco takes approximately 11 times as much nitrogen from the soil as food crops do. Each year, 20,000 square miles of forest are cut down for firewood to cure tobacco. If the land used to grow tobacco were switched to grain production, we could feed 10 to 20 million more people.

    Every year, five trillion cigarettes are smoked, and it takes one tree to produce 300 cigarettes. That works out to around 1.6 billion trees every year used to create cigarettes. One mature tree can absorb 48 pounds of CO2 a year. Assuming the average tree absorbs about 40 pounds, there are 33 million additional tons of carbon dioxide that could have been absorbed by trees used to make cigarettes. Add the 600 million trees cut down to dry tobacco, and that”™s 47 million pounds of CO2 that could have been absorbed just from trees destroyed to make cigarettes and cultivate tobacco.

    Cigarette smoke releases around 3 million tons of carbon dioxide each year and 5.7 million tons of methane, or 1.5 percent of all methane emitted due to human activity. Methane has 25 times the effect on global warming as CO2, and this methane is equal to about 140 million tons of CO2. Add these statistics to the carbon from tree destruction and that”™s about 200 million tons of CO2.

    The environmental raping doesn”™t stop there. Cigarette filters contain cadmium, arsenic and lead, albeit trace amounts. While students are angered to hear that Village Housing still has lead paint, smokers release lead into our soil through cigarette butts. While admittedly there are only traces of these chemicals in a single cigarette, when multiplied by 5 trillion, the amount becomes significant.

    Unlike other activities that produce pollutants, smoking has not improved our lives. While we enjoy environmentally-damaging meat (although I”™m a vegan, which makes me way better than you), benefit from the increased ease of transportation via cars and planes, and enjoy a huge variety of foods from all over the world, there are few positive effects from smoking. In response to this, Obies could stop smoking. Or, they could just say screw it, complain about America”™s lax environmental regulations, and keep smoking. I”™m guessing the latter is far more likely.

  4. i smoke, and i’m also an environmentalist. i don’t litter…but i do drop things that are on fire. generally i do pick up my butts–and any other butts on the ground while i’m down there–and put them in an outdoor ashtray or waste basket, which i presume goes to a landfill. is that better?

  5. Hello,
    I find all of this very interesting especially because I am currently writing an ecological footprint paper on cigarettes. However, I would like to know where the references/ sources are for the information provided in this text.

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