Environmental Effects of Cigarette Litter in Various Ways

Environmental Effects of Cigarette Litter in Various Ways

Even as smoking rates decline, cigarette butts remain the most common litter item collected. Yet most people don’t know that cigarette butts are not biodegradable and pollute the soil, waterways, beaches and air. Cigarette butts are formed of cellulose acetate, a type of plastic that adds to the billions of bits of plastic that reach the ocean each year. Learn more about ways cigarette litter impacts the environment:

1. Degradation

Despite smoking rates declining, cigarette butts are still the most common item collected by litter clean-up crews. They are found along green spaces, sidewalks, roadsides, beaches and waterways. Cigarette butts are not just a nuisance but also dangerous to wildlife. 

The cellulose acetate used in the filter of a cigarette is made of plastic and does not biodegrade on land or in water. As they degrade, the cigarette filters release toxic chemicals into the environment. When soaked in water, these leach out of the filter and enter aquatic ecosystems. Field scientists frequently discover cigarette butts within the stomachs of dead fish, turtles, and seabirds that wash up on beaches.

The toxins leached out of a single cigarette butt soaking in one liter of water are enough to kill the small crustacean Daphnia Magna, an important part of marine food webs. The toxins can be absorbed by the tissues of other organisms that consume these animals, including humans. 

The chemical compounds from cigarette butts are accumulating in the ocean, making it more acidic and less oxygenated, harming marine life and damaging the habitat of coral reefs and other coastal organisms. In addition, cigarette butts can cause fires by igniting vegetation and causing erosion. The environmental impact of cigarette butts litter also extends to e-cigarette waste, which contains metal, circuitry, single-use plastic cartridges and batteries.

2. Contamination

Cigarette butts are often contaminated with heavy metals and other chemicals that leach from them. They also contain organic chemicals and tar trapped in the filters. This chemical-laden litter can contaminate water, soil and air as it degrades or is carried by wind and rain. 

It can even taint fishing gear and poison freshwater and saltwater fish. Cigarette butts, discarded in billions yearly by smokers, are the most typical trash on beaches. They contribute to the waste in storm drains and can cause wildfires that destroy forests, lands and homes. In addition, discarded butts have been linked to nutrient pollution in rivers and streams and can damage wildlife habitats.

Cellulose acetate, the plastic that makes up the cigarette filter, takes years to break down in the environment and can be carried by wind, rain and waves to beaches and oceans. This litter contributes to ocean debris and pollution, affecting marine life’s and human populations’ health. 

In one laboratory study, a single cigarette butt leached enough toxins to kill 50 percent of freshwater and saltwater fish exposed to it for 24 hours. It demonstrates that cigarette litter risks humans and animals and needs attention from regulatory agencies.

3. Bioaccumulation

Cigarette butts, the main source of plastic waste on beaches, are a major health threat to marine life. The cellulose acetate in the filters can adsorb and transport other toxic chemicals, like those found in cigarette smoke, that can bioaccumulate in fish, seabirds, birds and mammals. 

In addition, they can leach organic chemicals into waterways that are toxic to fish and other microorganisms. It is not uncommon for field researchers to find discarded cigarette butts in the stomachs of dead seabirds, turtles and fish washed up on shores. 

Cigarette and e-cigarette litter pollutes soil, beaches and waterways with organic chemicals, pesticide residues, nicotine and heavy metals that can seep into rivers and the ocean. Government agencies, environmental organizations and anti-litter campaigns should educate smokers that cigarette butts are a hazardous waste that should be put in the trash or designated smoking areas. 

They could also advocate for state and local legislation that puts the cost of clean-up on those who produce the waste and not taxpayers. For example, bottle bills or deposit-return schemes have helped to reduce the amount of disposable bottles, cans and plastic bags that end up in the environment; and Extended Producer Responsibility laws for electronics, which require producers to pay for recycling their products, have reduced e-waste pollution.

4. Impact on Wildlife

Cigarette butts are more than just trash; they contain poisons that bio-accumulate the food chain and can damage commercial fisheries and water supplies. Additionally, the tobacco industry uses more water and wood than most other crops, contributing to deforestation and contaminating soil. 

The cellulose acetate plastic in cigarette filters is not naturally biodegradable, and it takes at least nine months to break down in the sun, releasing small fragments of waste into water or soil. The chemicals in cigarette butts, such as nicotine, formaldehyde and polyaromatic hydrocarbons, can leach into waterways and become deadly to aquatic organisms. It’s common to find cigarette butts in the stomachs of dead sea birds, turtles and fish washed up on beaches. While environmental clean-up efforts are important, it is much better to prevent littering in the first place. 

It’s easy for smokers to reduce their impact by carrying a pocket ashtray, looking for designated smoking areas and keeping ash in a receptacle. Businesses and organizations can also promote responsible smoking by providing ash and trash receptacles on patios, loading docks, picnic areas, and parking lots. 

Some tobacco companies claim they are reducing their environmental footprint by offering eco-friendly cigarette products. Still, these campaigns attempt to greenwash their harmful business practices and mislead consumers. 


TDPel Media

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