No ifs. No butts.
Meet the worlds most littered item and the biggest plastic contaminant of our oceans - cigarette butts.
Cigarettes are still very popular things, with reports showing that several trillion traditional tobacco cigarettes are bought every year. Trillions are then dropped every year; on the pavement, flicked out of a window, over the side of a boat or buried in the sand of the beach. About 4.5 TRILLION butts, globally, annually, to be precise...
Our friends at Clean The Butts collect around 2,000 – 5,000 cigarette butts in every beach clean they do, and those are the ones that haven’t already made it into the water...
“Cigarette butts are the most common piece of plastic used by individuals worldwide! Trillions are discarded irresponsibly every year.”
- Clean The Butts
Butts are a big problem and as a form of plastic, they take about 13 YEARS to decompose. For such small things they cause a lot of damage and for quite a while.
Since the mid-1960’s, strong links between smoking and various detrimental health impacts including types of cancer, so it’s perhaps no surprise that cigarette butts, wherever left, will have a detrimental impact on other living species that come into contact with them.
Largely, cigarette butts get flicked onto the ground or into water. Even when dropped on the pavement or the road, they make their way into storm drains which actually head straight out into rivers and oceans (rainwater drains aren’t filtered like our drains at home, they overflow straight into the environment).
Cigarettes have been shown to contain around 7,000 chemicals, all ending up in the environment when smoked - their toxicity content is HIGH. When a butt makes its way into water or land, its chemical content and plastic structure breaks down, contaminating whatever is around it. Imagine this 4.5 TRILLION times across the planet every year; it gets very dirty.
Whilst the tobacco and most of the paper in a cigarette is burnt off when smoked, what remains is the filter, the butt, which is actually made of plastic fibres (cellulose acetate). Used filters, having fulfilled their design, are also full of the chemicals they’ve held back. The plastic filter plus the variety of chemicals within them breakdown and leech into any environment in which they are discarded; land or sea.
“Not only are [butts] made out of plastic but also the filter is full of thousands of toxic chemicals, many of them are known to cause cancer. These chemicals spill into our environment.”
- Clean The Butts
Did you know that some of the individual chemicals contained within butts are used on a more industrial scale to kill pests? Arsenic is used as a rat poison, for example, and tobacco itself is a very effective pesticide. Many of the chemicals in cigarettes are already effective at killing ‘unwanted’ animals and plants, so you can see just how potent they are to all things natural.
Sailors, it’s not pretty reading on the impact of cigarette butts.
Studies show that cigarette butts in soil hamper the growth in plants – reducing the success of germination, stunting plant growth and root structures.
In the sea, well, cigarette butts have been named the single biggest contaminant – beating even the plastic straw (not a trophy you want to take home). It has been shown that even one cigarette butt in litre of water containing fish, kills HALF of them.
Other reports show that seabirds mistake them for food and ingest them, or feed them to their young. NBC cited that cigarette waste has been found in around 70% of sea birds and around 30% of sea turtles.
Fish, too, have been found to eat cigarette butts, which worryingly transfers cigarette butt toxicity back into the human food chain via our seafood.
What the land and sea soaks up, we soak up, too.
What we can do
Smoke much? Then, properly dispose of your butts!
Whether on land or at sea, if you see butts lying around then safely (with gloves or litter sticks) pick them up and put them in the bin.
Butts belong in the bin - no ifs. No butts.
With gratitude to Clean The Butts - thank you for all that you do!