Plastic bags, bottles, straws, and cutlery have long held the spotlight of targeted plastic pollution. However, statistics indicate there’s another — arguably more damaging — culprit for waste-related decline in ocean health.

Cigarette butts, also known as filters or ends, are intended to store some of the chemicals that smokers inhale — not enough to help smokers’ health, but enough to leach out in marine environments and kill fish.

According to local surveys and national reports, cigarette butts are the most abundant form of waste left behind by beach-goers across the globe. Of the six trillion cigarettes smoked worldwide each year, an estimated 4.5 million butts are tossed directly into the environment. In the United States, “smoking-related debris” make up over one-third of all the anthropogenic waste found on beaches, and in rivers and streams. [Cigarette Butt Pollution Project]

Just as other plastics, cellulose acetate in cigarette butts will photodegrade (physically break down into tiny microplastic bits) but never biodegrade (chemically break down). As a result, the toxic material persists in the environment indefinitely after being littered.

This plastic is uniquely dangerous because it most often contains trace amounts of the carcinogenic chemicals in the original cigarette. When the plastic additives, absorbed nicotine, and trace heavy metals (such as lead and arsenic) leach from cigarette butts; they become integrated in the chemical composition of the surrounding seawater. Once ingested by marine organisms, these microplastics bits pose physical and biochemical risks that can kill marine organisms and/or bioaccumulate along the food chain. Ultimately, these adverse effects impact humans through seafood consumption and the associated water pollution.

“Cigarette butts are a pervasive, toxic and recalcitrant type of marine litter that requires urgent attention from manufacturers, users, authorities and the public to prevent the ingestion of cigarette butts by biota and water pollution from its leachate.” [Environmental Research]

In recent years, traditional cigarette-smoking has been largely replaced by e-cigarettes. “The leading manufacturer, Juul, for example, saw its sales increase nearly sevenfold between 2014 and 2017.” Today, more than 10 million Americans use e-cigarettes.

Because e-cigarettes are considered hazardous waste and e-waste, bulkier plastic exterior and likewise causal cultural prominence only increases the need for intervention.

In the context of responsible cigarette waste management, Richard Barnes of the University of California stresses the potential for the utilization of regulatory mechanisms and principles that align with aims for responsible management and mitigation of smoking-related waste. The concepts of “Precautionary Principle—which states that environmental harm does not have to be proven to justify preventative intervention—and “Extended Producer Responsibility”—which asserts that those who produce a toxic waste product should be held accountable for its cleanup” have been effectively invoked to address concerning waste from other consumer products. [Tobacco Control]

Environmental, aesthetic, economic, and health-related motivations have driven the establishment of cigarette smoking bans in a number of public parks and beaches. The first of such regulations was established in Hanauma Bay, Hawaii; arguably named the number one beach in the United States due to its effectively mandated cleanliness.

Likewise, the prohibitions on smoking led by grassroots efforts in Solana Beach, California and Sarasota, Florida have engaged a significant number of beach-goers and generated marked reductions in coastal pollution. For nearly five years, Sarasota successfully enforced a ban on smoking at its beautiful white sand beaches. However, the preemption was overturned after a “a court decision found only the state could make such laws” [Source].

The aforementioned case studies are among the body of supporting ambition for long-term solutions to cigarette pollution. They have elucidated the importance of inclusivity to be achieved by educating the general public on the implications of cigarette-smoking and upholding of smokers’ rights in the enforcement of regulatory mechanisms.

What can we do to mitigate toxic plastic cigarette waste?

As the direct perpetrator of post-consumer waste pollution, we have the clearest insight to decipher which regulatory mechanism could be most effective. By contributing to these conversations, we can all play a role in developing waste management solutions that will offer us and our environment the greatest benefit.

A parallel to the “bottle bills” that have advanced public participation in responsible post-consumer waste management through loop-closing deposit-return systems could be effective for recycling these devices. In Boston, creative receptacles that pose a poll question may be answered by dropping a cigarette butt into one of multiple openings. This has been effective in making the disposal process more engaging and attractive for smokers.

Alternatively, a compulsory take-back policy (similar to that enforced for e-waste in the EU) may be implemented to reduce cigarette butt waste, invoking the aforementioned principle of Extended Producer Responsibility.

As our increasingly environmentally and health conscious society addresses the effects of anthropogenic pollution; cigarette waste is among the most attention-deserving, threatening forms. The DFO Team challenges you to abstain from smoking, educate those around you, and engage in waste management progress for the health of your community and local environment. The Butt Stops Here!

Questions about plastic pollution, responsible waste management,  upcoming street or beach clean-ups? Suggestions for future Trash Talk topics? Send them my way natalia@debrisfreeoceans.org!