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The Cigarette Butt Pollution Project

The Environmental Impact of Cigarette Butt Waste:  Just the Facts.

In this one-page summary we provide the essential facts that everyone should know about cigarette butt waste in the environment.  We encourage you to download and share it!

Discarded cigarette butts (mainly the filter) are a form of non-biodegradable litter. Carried as runoff from streets to drains, to rivers, and ultimately to the ocean and its beaches, cigarette filters are the single most collected item each year in international beach cleanups. They are an environmental blight on streets, sidewalks, and other open areas. Rather than being a protective health device, cigarette filters are primarily a marketing tool to help sell ‘safe’ cigarettes. They are perceived by much of the public (especially current smokers) to reduce the health risks of smoking through technology. Filters have reduced the machine-measured yield of tar and nicotine from burning cigarettes, but there is controversy as to whether this has reduced the disease burden of smoking to the population. Filters actually may serve to sustain smoking by making it seem less urgent for smokers to quit and easier for children to initiate smoking because of reduced irritation from early experimentation.

Several options are available to reduce the environmental impact of cigarette filter waste, including:

  • Increasing fines and penalties for littering butts
  • Monetary deposits on filters
  • Increasing availability of butt receptacles
  • Expanded public education

It may even be possible to ban the sale of filtered cigarettes altogether on the basis of their adverse environmental impact as toxic hazardous waste. This option may be especially attractive in coastal states where beaches accumulate butt waste and where smoking indoors is increasingly prohibited.

Additional research is needed on the various policy options, including behavioral research on the impact of banning the sale of filtered cigarettes altogether.

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Why is cigarette butt waste Bad for the environment and YOU?

Cigarette butt waste causes ‘externalities’… that is, when discarded into the environment by a smoker, someone else has to clean up the waste or suffer some economic loss as a result of the waste production. For example, butts discarded on beaches reduce their attractiveness and may cause harm to marine life. Cleaning them up costs the beach community some expense. Few economic studies have been done to enumerate these costs, but some of the externalities have been described in more detail in this journal article: Thomas E Novotny and Feng Zhao. Consumption and production waste: another externality of tobacco use →. Tob. Control 1999;8;75-80).

What can be done to solve the problem of cigarette butt waste?

There are a number of approaches to preventing, mitigating, and reducing butt waste in the environment, including (in no particular order):

  • Labeling. For example: “Cigarette filters are non-biodegradable toxic waste. Disposal of filters should be in accordance with state law”
  • Deposit/return: For example: “Bottle bills” were designed as a way to reduce the hazards, clean-up costs, and waste of discarded glass containers.
  • Waste fees/taxes: These are intended to pay for the costs of recycling the item and disposing properly of any non-recyclable material. Examples now include electronics.
  • Litigation. Litigation has been pursued against manufacturers of products that damage the environment, and this might be a source for class action suits to recover the costs of cleanup and for the negligence and nuisance caused by butt waste.
  • Fines. Levied against consumers or producers who knowingly or unknowingly discard butts into the environment.
  • Banning single use filters.  Although the tobacco industry has tried for years to produce a marketable biodegradable filter, they cannot do so.  Instead, the simplest answer to the non-biodegradable filters attached to 98% of all commercial cigarettes sold in the United States is  to  simply ban sales of single use filtered cigarettes.  Filters have absolutely no health benefit and have been associated with deeper inhalation of carcinogens and a resultant increase in cancer risk since the widespread deceptive marketing of filtered cigarettes.
  • Consumer education.  Smokers incorporate butt disposal into their smoking ritual, ignoring the environmental consequences. Public information and stronger enforcement of non-smoking environments and anti-litter laws may de-normalize this irresponsible behavior.

For a more complete discussion of policies to reduce cigarette butt waste, see Novotny TE, Lum K, Smith E, Wang V, Barnes R. Filtered Cigarettes and the Case for an Environmental Policy on Cigarette Waste.  International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. ISSN 1660-4601.