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The Toxic Trash of Cigarette Butts

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Every year, 750,000 tonnes of cigarette butts are discarded by smokers. One estimate is that four trillion of these little nub ends are simply dropped on the ground. The filters are slow to biodegrade while the toxins they contain leach out into the environment.

What’s in Cigarette Butts?

We know that cigarette smoking is injurious to our health. The Centers for Disease Control notes that “More than 10 times as many U.S. citizens have died prematurely from cigarette smoking than have died in all the wars fought by the United States.”

Non-smokers may think “I’m golden because I don’t use tobacco.” They would be wrong to think that.

The butts that smokers leave behind litter the landscape and they contain a toxic stew of chemicals; the same lethal mixture of cancer-causing agents in the cigarettes themselves.

Cigarettes are known to contain more than 4,000 different chemicals. Such joyous substances as arsenic, formaldehyde, hydrogen cyanide, benzene, cadmium, and residues of insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides are in discarded filters.

They’re only trace amounts, you might say. Yes, but trace amounts multiplied trillions of times annually. It all adds up to a burden on the environment that is troubling.

Many wildfires are started by carelessly discarded cigarette butts.

Many wildfires are started by carelessly discarded cigarette butts.

Discarded Tobacco Remnants

When people go out on beach clean-ups the most commonly found items are cigarette ends. In one day, volunteers picked up 340,000 butts on California beaches.

Tobacco waste products make up between 19 percent and 38 percent of all trash by count that is collected in clean-up campaigns.

Of course, the offensive remnants of the smoking habit get routinely flicked out of the windows of vehicles and are dropped on sidewalks. In fact, The American Legacy Foundation found that almost three-quarters of smokers admit to such behaviours. People who wouldn't throw a used facial tissue or newspaper onto the street seem to see nothing wrong with tossing a cigarette butt into the gutter.

The indoor smoking bans brought in by many jurisdictions have made the problem worse. Hundreds of thousands of people now have to nip outside bars and other places for a smoke and the butts usually get dropped on the ground. In the past, full ashtrays would be emptied into the garbage and taken to properly managed landfills.

The group Keep Britain Tidy says that cigarette-butt pollution increased by 43 percent after indoor smoking was banned in such places as theatres, shopping centres, and offices.

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Effects of Cigarette Toxins

The poisonous rubbish lies around in streets until rain washes it into storm sewers. From there, it flows into rivers and lakes and eventually out to sea. There, the noxious substances leach out and become part of the water column.

Thomas Novotny has written (New Scientist) that “We have found that one cigarette butt soaked in a litre of water for 96 hours leaches out enough toxins to kill half of the fresh or saltwater fish exposed to them.”

Here’s John Dyer for VICE News, “In the real world, marine scientists have discovered whales, sea turtles, birds, and other sea creatures with stomachs packed with the non-biodegradable filters. ‘They can starve to death for thinking they’re full because of cigarette butts,’ Darby Hoover of the Natural Resources Defense Council told VICE News.”

A 2011 article in The British Medical Journal notes that children, pets, and wildlife sometimes eat cigarette butts: “ . . . children often explore their environment through oral contact or through mimicry of adult behaviours. In young children, 1–2 mg may be toxic, causing nausea and vomiting in low doses, and more extensive neurological symptoms with higher doses.”

There is concern that the poisons in tobacco waste might be getting into the human food supply. If the toxins are in the water table, and they are, then grazing cattle will be picking them up and passing them on to us in dairy products and meat.

Solutions to Cigarette Pollution

The Keep Britain Tidy group has set up well-signed areas that have been designated for smokers. There are bins for smokers to deposit waste and these “have reduced cigarette litter by up to 89 percent.”

Some people go further by suggesting a complete ban on smoking in outdoor, public spaces such as streets, parks, and beaches.

Strict enforcement of anti-litter ordinances would cut down on the problem, but few municipalities are willing to commit the manpower to such a program.

One approach to the problem is called product stewardship. This is a program in which manufacturers and retailers assume responsibility for the environmentally friendly disposal of goods that have ended their life cycle.

It was started in the United States, has gone global, and covers many products such as paint, carpets, batteries, and electronics. An article in The British Medical Journal says that “what is needed now is for tobacco control and environmental activists to work together to hold the global cigarette industry accountable for the toxic mess they’ve caused.”

Cigarette manufacturers have fought tooth and claw to make sure they are not held responsible for the pollution caused by their products.

Bonus Factoids

  • According to the Keep America Beautiful campaign, 77 percent of people surveyed don’t see cigarette butts as litter.
  • The City of San Francisco estimates it spends six million dollars a year cleaning up cigarette butts from its streets.
  • According to Beachapedia, “There are over 176,000,000 pounds of discarded cigarette butts in the United States each year.”
  • According to the World Health Organization, 1.1 billion people worldwide are cigarette smokers and this is expected to increase to 1.6 billion by 2025. Eighty percent of these smokers are in low- and middle-income countries.
  • Albert Einstein picked cigarette butts up in the street and stuffed any unused tobacco into his pipe. He did this to get around his doctor’s efforts to get him to stop smoking cigarettes.

“Cigarette butt waste is the last socially acceptable form of littering in what has become an increasingly health and environmentally conscious world.”

— British Medical Journal


  • “Health Effects of Cigarette Smoking.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, May 15, 2017.
  • “Toxicity of Cigarette Butts and their Chemical Components to the Marine and Freshwater Fishes, Atherinops affinis and Pimephales promelas.” Elli Slaughter, San Diego State University, 2010.
  • “Millions of Discarded Cigarette Butts Are Poisoning the Planet.” John Dyer, Vice News, May 8, 2014.
  • “Tobacco Product Waste: An Environmental Approach to Reduce Tobacco Consumption.” Thomas E. Novotny and Elli Slaughter, Current Environmental Health Reports, September 2014.
  • “Time to Kick Cigarette Butts – They’re Toxic Trash.” Thomas Novotny, New Scientist, June 25, 2014.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Rupert Taylor

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