Cigarette Butts the Most Common Piece of Litter
What's the most common piece of litter being flicked onto the ground, into lakes, parks, beaches and roads? Yep, it's the cigarette butt.
According to environmental cleanup reports, nearly 2 million cigarettes or cigarette filters and butts were picked up internationally from beaches and inland waterways as part of the annual International Coastal Cleanup (ICC) in 2010, including more than one million from the United States alone. Cigarette butts account for more than three times the number of any other item found over the past 25 years of ICC cleanups, according to Legacy, a public health organization.
Besides being unsightly and, for at least a few minutes, a fire hazard, cigarette butts have potentially toxic effects on ecosystems. In one laboratory test, one cigarette butt soaked in a liter of water was lethal to half of the fish exposed.
In observance of Earth Day on April 22, Legacy is working to raise awareness about the negative impact cigarette filters and discarded cigarette butts have on the environment. Cigarette butts contain heavy metals that can leach into waterways, posing a lethal threat to aquatic life. They are costly to local communities to clean up and dispose of as well.
Cigarette butts are made mostly of plastic, which can take years to decompose in the marine environment and down into smaller pieces. While a majority of the respondents surveyed nationally (78 percent) know that cigarette butts are not typically biodegradable and recognize their toxicity (89 percent), tobacco products are still the most prevalent type of litter collected along U.S. roadways and on beaches. These toxic pieces of trash are only biodegradable under ideal conditions and in “real world” conditions, they merely break up into small particles of plastic.
“If more than 287 billion cigarettes were sold last year, where did all those butts go?” said Cheryl G. Healton, DrPH, President and CEO of Legacy. “Cigarette manufacturers acknowledge that there is no such thing as a safe cigarette and have long known that cigarette filters don’t reduce health consequences of smoking and are a major source of coastal litter.” Cigarettes and their butts contain carcinogenic chemicals that make tobacco use the leading cause of preventable death in the United States and globally.
Cigarette litter clean-up costs can be substantial to local authorities. The Legacy poll also found that the majority (73 percent) of those surveyed believe that smokers should be responsible for cleaning up and disposing of cigarette butts after they smoke.
“Cigarette butts are commonly, unconsciously and inexcusably dumped into the global environment every year,” said Dr. Holly Bamford, Deputy Assistant Administrator for the National Ocean Service at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. “Once these filters make their way into our oceans, they could be mistaken for food and ingested by birds and marine life, which could cause them to choke or starve to death. We have to begin to change social norms so that just like every other form of litter, it is unacceptable to drop plastic cigarette butts anywhere other than proper receptacles,” she said.