Cigarette butts are persistent litter that harms beaches, streets, and sidewalks. Research has shown that when cigarette butts are suspended in fresh and salt water, they leach chemicals that harm humans.
It takes labor-intensive work to clean up these harmful pollutants. The best way to prevent them from polluting our environment is for people to stop littering with cigarette butts in the first place.
1. Health Risks
Cigarette butts are the world’s most significant source of plastic waste. A filter contains toxic chemicals that poison and kill fish, marine plants, and other wildlife. They are also a significant health risk for people who contact them. The cigarette filters are made of cellulose acetate, a form of plastic that takes up to 10 years to break down when exposed to sunlight and wave action in the ocean.
This is why they are often found on beaches and in the environment, especially after smokers discard their discarded sticks. Anti-litter campaigns and handheld ashtrays have yet to significantly change smokers’ entrenched butt-flicking habits, leaving cities, counties, and volunteer organizations to carry out the expensive and time-consuming task of cleaning up this primary source of ocean pollution.
Fortunately, environmental groups are fighting to curb the problem of cigarette butts pollution. Also, public education campaigns help raise awareness, and increased enforcement of littering regulations can also impact the behavior of smokers. However, the most effective solution would be to shift responsibility from consumers to manufacturers.
The tobacco industry has been asked to pay for the cleanup costs of their products but has refused. Scientists have shown that a single cigarette butt can leach 165 chemicals into the water, including many human carcinogens.
Those chemicals can then build up in the aquatic food chain, impacting humans and other species that consume marine life. It is hoped that stricter enforcement of laws against smoking on public property will help to reduce the number of cigarette butts in the environment.
2. Environment Risks
It’s widely known that smoking cigarettes exposes smokers to numerous health risks, including lung disease and emphysema. But it’s less well-known that the chemicals and metals in cigarette butts endanger the environment, too. Cigarette butts contain more than 4,800 chemical compounds, including 69 carcinogenic ones.
Cigarette filters, made of plastic (cellulose acetate), take a decade or more to biodegrade. Cigarette butts are a global litter problem. Flicked onto beaches, discarded in parks, or left behind on sidewalks, rainwater carries them away, and storm drains into waterways, lakes, and oceans.
In some cases, the butts are eaten by wildlife. In other instances, they leach organic chemicals and heavy metals into waterways and the ocean. The acetate filter in most cigarettes is also non-biodegradable and can release hundreds of toxic chemicals over time.
These chemicals include formaldehyde, nicotine, arsenic, copper, chromium, cadmium, and polyaromatic hydrocarbons. These chemicals can harm human, animal, and plant life in aquatic environments. They can harm the health of fish and shellfish, lead to mercury poisoning in birds, and cause vascular constriction in clams.
Pollutants can also increase the chances of wildfires and damage vegetation, buildings, and structures. This is why many communities are working to reduce smoking in public places and why some cities have introduced cigarette-selling bans.
3. Wildlife Risks
Cigarette butts are all too familiar on beaches and waterways, where they contaminate wildlife and the environment. The plastic cigarette filters do not biodegrade, so they remain intact as they are blown by the wind, carried into drains, and washed away into rivers, lakes, and oceans.
They contribute to the global plastic pollution problem and put additional strain on municipal waste management systems, adding to segregation and collection costs. When cigarette butts are left in the environment, they leach out thousands of toxic chemicals to plants, insects, rodents, fungi, and animals such as worms and fish.
The toxins also harm humans and other species by interfering with their metabolic processes. It is common for young children and pet dogs to swallow discarded cigarette butts, which can lead to vomiting and convulsions. Cigarette butts are especially dangerous for marine species in an ocean with plastic litter.
They are a frequent source of entanglement and drowning for sea turtles, whales, and dolphins. It is not unusual for researchers to find discarded butts inside the stomachs of dead sea birds, sea turtles, and fish. Despite their diminutive size, cigarette butts are very visible and attractive to wildlife, so smokers must find designated smoking areas or carry reusable pocket ashtrays when out in nature.
4. Human Risks
While cigarettes are commonly regarded as a health issue, they pose significant environmental risks. The tobacco industry causes deforestation, pollutes the air and waterways with harmful chemicals, and produces greenhouse gases, contributing to climate change. The entire cigarette life cycle poses environmental impacts, from growing and cultivating tobacco to manufacturing and selling cigarettes.
Cigarette butts are a significant source of litter on beaches and rivers, and they can leach organic chemicals into the environment that are toxic to freshwater and saltwater fish. They are the leading item collected during environmental cleanups. When cigarette butts wash ashore or are flushed down the toilet, they can be mistaken for food by wildlife, which may ingest them and suffer injuries or death. They can also become a choking hazard for humans who swim or walk along coastlines and in waterways.