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Smoking and the Environment: How Cigarette Butts Pollute The Environment

Smoking and tobacco use are serious issues that have some grave environmental impacts. In 2015, approximately 267 billion cigarettes were smoked, and the numbers grow each year. Cigarette butts are one of the most frequently littered items in the U.S. and can leach harmful chemicals into our land, water, and air.

Smoking and Litter

Cigarette butts have accounted for around 30% to 40% of all collected litter across international coasts and urban areas since the 1980s. They are the most littered items on American roadways, and are commonly collected near retail areas, construction sites, recreational areas, and even storm drains. What's even more surprising is that the Ocean Conservancy found that 1,030,640 butts were removed from U.S. waterways and beaches in 2016. In terms of statistics, this accounts for around 24% of the total debris collected.

It's not just cigarette butts that are being found. Other items like cigarette lighters, tobacco packages, and wrappers, and cigar tips were also found and removed by the tens of thousands. Around 86% of smokers consider their cigarette butts to be litter, yet that doesn't stop three-quarters of smokers who have admittedly thrown them on the ground or out of a car window. The environmental implications of this are serious. Most cigarette filters are made from a plastic called cellulose acetate which only degrades under severe biological conditions, such as when the filters collect in sewage. This means that most cigarette butts thrown onto the streets or beaches are not biodegradable.

There are increasing concerns over how tobacco waste is impacting the environment. Add to that the large costs of cleanup, and many states and local municipalities have begun to enact new laws and policies to combat the problem. Around 312 municipalities have now prohibited smoking on public beaches, and 1,497 have prohibited smoking in public parks as of mid-2017.

Cigarettes and Pollution

A combination of cigarette butts, plastic filters, and other cigarette parts can cause serious environmental damage to beaches, waterways, and the soil. This waste has also been proven to be detrimental to wildlife. One study found that patterns of hydrocarbon levels in the soil was similar to that of discarded cigarette butts, indicating that the chemicals found in the soil seeped from the littered butts. Select forms of hydrocarbon are carcinogenic, meaning that they can cause cancer.

When people litter and toss their cigarette butts, the material is carried as runoff to drains and then to rivers and oceans. Elements of cigarettes like nicotine, metal, and pesticide residues seep into aquatic ecosystems. These elements are extremely toxic to fish, microorganisms, and other marine wildlife. One lab study showed that the chemicals leached from one cigarette butt while soaked in a liter of water for 24 hours released enough dangerous toxins to kill about half of the saltwater and freshwater fish that were exposed to it for 96 hours.

The Cultivation and Manufacturing of Tobacco Products

In terms of growing tobacco and manufacturing cigarettes, research has shown that these processes cause significant issues like deforestation and the degradation of our environment.

Striking statistics were found in 2015 when approximately 1.3 million pounds of toxic chemicals were reported as having been disposed of or released from tobacco facilities. Some of these chemicals are closely monitored by the EPA's Toxic Release Inventory Database. This is because these chemicals are considered to be hazardous to human health as well as the environment. Some examples of the chemicals that were released include nicotine, ammonia, salts, nitrate compounds, and sulfuric acid.

What You Can Do

It may sound like a challenge to help protect our environment from the serious and dangerous effects of tobacco. One thing you can do is encourage smokers that you know to quit. Other ways to help are to implement tougher tobacco control policies and use effective marketing campaigns geared to combat smoking. Working together, we can create a cleaner, healthier world for future generations.