Cigarette butts: Year 2023 Toxic plastic pollution, should they be banned?

Every year, trillions of cigarette butts are dumped into the environment, where they dissolve and release toxic metals and nicotine before becoming microplastic pollution.

Each year, smokers purchase over 6.5 trillion cigarettes worldwide. That equals 18 billion each day. Not all of a cigarette’s insides and paper wrapping burn when it is smoked, though most of them do. There are trillions of cigarette filters, often known as cigarette butts or ends, and only about one-third of them are disposed of in the trash. The remainder are carelessly thrown out a window or into the sidewalk. The executive director of Clean Ocean Action, Cindy Zipf, thinks that flicking a cigarette has a certain appeal. It is really automated.

A material called cellulose acetate is used to make cigarette filters. They release not only that plastic into the environment when they are thrown away, but also the nicotine, heavy metals, and several other poisons they have ingested.

With an estimated two-thirds of the trillions of filters used annually being thrown into the environment, cigarette butts are the main source of plastic pollution.

According to a recent study, smoking hinders plant growth. Additionally, they frequently enter rivers, lakes, and finally oceans.

Cigarette butts, according to Zipf, have consistently been at the top of the list of things her team discovers during beach cleanups. The billions more that are still in the ocean pose a threat to marine life since they can be eaten, she claimed.

They resemble a crumb of food on the ocean surface, according to Zipf.

She claimed that as e-cigarettes have grown in popularity, the pollution issue has only gotten worse because they are also primarily composed of plastic.

Both the usage of e-cigarettes and the associated plastic garbage are “becoming so pervasive,” according to Zipf. It’s just the same thing in a different shape.

From plastics to tobacco

For thousands of years, people have been smoking or chewing tobacco. By the 1800s, snuff, pipes, and paper cigarettes were the most popular ways to consume tobacco. However, the cigarette’s rise to popularity was sparked by the development of the cigarette rolling machine around the turn of the century, which significantly increased manufacturing.

There was an explosion of smoking in the 20th century. American adults smoked 54 cigarettes per year on average in 1900. That number increased to around 4,000 by 1960. Cigarette butts (filters) weren’t around for the lion’s share of that time. But with time, it became apparent how smoking affects your health.

Cigarette butts


Scientists started establishing links between smoking and threats to the general public’s health in the late 1930s. The Surgeon General formally recognized a causal relationship between smoking and lung cancer in 1957. The organization had commissioned and published a thorough analysis by 1964 that highlighted “a 70% increase in the mortality rate of smokers over non-smokers.”

Cigarette butts (filters) were one of the tobacco firms’ responses as they rushed to address growing public concern.

Tom Novotny, an epidemiologist at San Diego State University and one of the first to study the effects of cigarettes on the environment, says that there was a “whole attempt to reduce tar and nicotine.”

Sales of filtered cigarettes butts had surpassed those of unfiltered cigarettes by the late 1950s.

Before settling on cellulose acetate, the preferred polymer today, tobacco businesses tested a wide range of filter materials, including cotton, charcoal, and food starch, Novotny claimed. 

There is still a lot of false information floating around regarding the materials that [filters] are made of, claims Novotny. A lot of smokers think it’s already biodegradable.

Some of the chemicals that smokers inhale is stored in filters; not nearly enough to improve the health of smokers, but enough to kill fish that dwell close to abandoned cigarettes butts that are leaching poisons.

cigarette butts

Even when filters degrade, which can take years, they disintegrate into minute particles of plastic known as microplastics, which are a growing threat to streams and the oceans. Additionally, Novotny conducted a lab test to determine whether the hazard posed by cigarette butts to the neighboring aquatic species.

According to his studies, “one cigarette butts in a liter [of water] kills half the fish. “A fresh plastic comes up.

Cindy Zipf frequently comes across cigarette butts when conducting her beach clean-ups. However, Zipf started to notice a new type of plastic object approximately five years ago: e-cigarettes.

She says they are composed entirely of hard plastic. “They look like little computer drives,”

The cartridge or pod that contains the “e-juice” solution, a heating element, a battery, and a mouthpiece are the typical components of an electronic cigarette. Although the pods can now be changed, the complete device was initially single use only. All of the circuitry and plastic ended up in the trash or on the ground.

The popularity of e-cigarettes has exploded. For instance, the market leader Juul had a nearly sevenfold surge in sales between 2014 and 2017. The FDA referred to the increase in teenage use as particularly “startling.” More than 10 million Americans currently use electronic cigarettes.

The necessity to dispose of the trash has increased along with the use of e-cigarettes. But according to Yogi Hendlin, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco and one of the top scholars on the subject, their combination of electronic parts and nicotine places them in a grey area for disposal.

He says that when he visits high schools, he frequently discovered “hundreds” of Juul pods in the parking lot. “E-cigarettes are viewed both as hazardous waste and e-waste,” he says. “From the regulatory side, we haven’t been able to find a way to deal with this.”

Research into how e-cigarette waste affects the environment is still in its early stages. For instance, Novotny has started investigating the toxicity to aquatic life, just as he did with cigarette butts.

The amount of plastic pods on beaches, according to Zipf, was increasing so quickly that her organization was considering adding them permanently to the scorecard for collection that volunteers keep with them while they add up items.

According to Zipf, “we seem to keep coming up with new and different uses—wasteful uses—for plastic.”

Why not outlaw the cigarette butt?

San Francisco, which is far from the only municipality dealing with this trash, spends about $7.5 million annually cleaning up cigarette butts.

It’s the final permissible type of littering, claims Novotny. Dog feces is more likely to be picked up by people than cigarette butts.

Novotny suggests a drastic solution: outlaw all cigarette butts. 

He claimed that there is no evidence that filters enhance health outcomes. Because they make smoking less unpleasant and give individuals the impression that they are harming fewer people, they can even be making the issue worse. He also emphasizes the advantages for the environment and has campaigned for a ban on single-use plastic filters, which the California state senate is presently debating.

It’s a significant intervention, and in his opinion, it might be successful.

They are prepared, if not yet willing, claims Hendlin.

Companies claim that filters are essential for maintaining emissions within legal limits and that consumers are the ones delaying the adoption of filter changes.

One of the biggest tobacco companies in the nation, Imperial, attempted paper filters there, but a representative said, “Unfortunately, it was commercially unsuccessful.” He claimed that customers didn’t enjoy the flavor.

There is currently no workable substitute for cellulose acetate for filters, according to Simon Cleverly of British American Tobacco.

A variety of businesses, including Smokey Treats and Greenbutts, assert that their goods are more environmentally friendly. Tadas Lisauskas, the company’s president, claims that Greenbutts is negotiating with big manufacturers to use their filters. But Novotny and Hendlin are dubious that such businesses can tackle the issue at its source—people’s propensity to litter cigarette butts.

A similar troublesome plastic issue is brought on by e-cigarettes. Before being disposed of in the regular garbage, the pods must be rinsed, and Juul tweeted in 2018 that it didn’t “currently have a recycling program available.”

Hendlin claims that redesigning e-cigarettes to use less or no plastic would be a costly undertaking that businesses appear reluctant to take on.

He suggests that a deposit system could be preferable, similar to the one for propane canisters.

He clarifies, “You exchange your old cartridges for new ones, and you get your [money] back when you went to buy your next set of pods.”

According to a Juul Labs spokeswoman, the business is already investigating and testing a comparable solution. He writes in an email, “We are devoted to responsible management and environmental sustainability. “We take the impact on the environment seriously.”

cigarette butts

The risks that cigarette butts pose to plastic have been addressed in several ways. India outlawed plastic wrapping for tobacco products in 2016.

She claims, “I believe it to be ignorance of convenience.” There is really no justification for it.

Plastic or the Planet?

You may assist by doing the following three things to reduce cigarette butts pollution:
  •         Give up smoking.
  •         Roll your own,
  •         If e-cigarettes cannot be recycled, avoid using them.


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