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Cigarette Butts: Plastic, Toxic, Marine Debris

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By: Anna Manyak, Knauss Fellow, NOAA Marine Debris Program

Prior to the 1960s, littering was commonplace.  For those of us who were not alive during that time and love a good TV show, Mad Men gives us an entertaining glimpse of the everyday practices of this era.  If you’re anything like me, you were probably appalled at the episode where the Draper family leaves their trash from a picnic scattered on the ground, with a receptacle in clear sight.  Our littering standards have come a long way since then.  Today, tossing trash on the street or out a car window is unacceptable and unlawful.  However, despite these great strides in litter control, littering of one item in particular continues to be commonplace: Cigarette butts.

Cigarette butts discarded on beach.
Credit: Danielle Richardet

Cigarette butts are the last socially acceptable form of litter, and it shows.  The next time you’re walking along a busy road or city street, take a look around you – cigarette butts are everywhere.  They don’t only impact the terrestrial environment.  Land runoff into rivers and streams can bring cigarette butts discarded on land into the marine environment, where they can impact marine organisms and habitats.

Cigarette butts are made of plastic – cellulose acetate to be exact (not cotton, as is sometimes thought).  Just like other forms of plastic, cigarette butts do not biodegrade, and can persist in the environment for a long period of time.  Additionally, consumption of cigarette butts by unknowing marine organisms can lead to death through choking or starvation.  They also contain toxins that can leech into the environment.  Some studies have shown that these toxins can have harmful effects on aquatic organisms, and yet, cigarette butts continue to be littered in huge quantities.

A trunk full of cigarette butts collected from Wrightsville Beach, NC (Count: 40,827)
Credit: Danielle Richardet

Danielle Richardet knows all too well the abundance of cigarette litter in the marine environment.  Through her blog ‘It Starts with Me,’ Danielle documents her quest for a cigarette-butt free beach in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina.  Since August 2010, Danielle has taken 20 minutes a couple days a week to stroll the beach and collect litter with her family.  Throughout 133 outings, they have collected 262 pounds of trash and 44,211 cigarette butts.  In one 20 minute outing, they collected an astounding 2,026 butts.  Imagine 2,026 plastic bottles cluttering the beach.  That would certainly not be acceptable by our current littering standards, so what makes plastic, toxic cigarette butts acceptable?

Each year the Ocean Conservancy sponsors the International Coastal Cleanup, a worldwide cleanup of litter and debris from waterways.  In the past 25 years, ICC volunteers have collected nearly 53 million cigarette butts.  In fact, every year, cigarette butts are the number one most collected item during the ICC, sometimes making up around a quarter of the litter and debris collected.

Sadly, the majority of the public are unaware that cigarette butt litter is so pervasive.  A recent survey conducted by Legacy®, a non-profit organization that focuses on spreading awareness about the health and environmental impacts of tobacco, found that the majority of people know that cigarette butts are not biodegradable and that they are toxic.  However, the majority of those surveyed were unaware that cigarette butts were the most littered item on beaches and roadways annually.

Things have changed since the early 20th century.  Today, we know that litter is harmful to the environment.  Cigarette butt litter is no different, and it’s time we began treating it that way.

With Earth Day this weekend, it’s a time to celebrate our environment and reconsider actions that can harm it.  Do your part and participate in an Earth Day event; spend a couple minutes cleaning up cigarette butts and share some messages about the impacts of the most-collected piece of marine debris.  Earth Day is a perfect time to start a conversation about changing some societal norms, and keeping cigarette butts off of the ground, and out of the ocean.

What you can do on Earth Day and every day:

  • If you smoke, don’t flick your butt!  Place it in a proper receptacle.
  • Organize cleanups in your local community (and make sure you document your findings with the Marine Debris Tracker App!)
  • Follow Danielle’s lead: be an environmental steward in your own community, and spread awareness about cigarette butt litter.

Author: NOAA Marine Debris Program

The NOAA Marine Debris Program envisions the global ocean and its coasts, users, and inhabitants free from the impacts of marine debris. Our mission is to investigate and solve the problems that stem from marine debris, in order to protect and conserve our nation's marine environment, natural resources, industries, economy, and people.

5 thoughts on “Cigarette Butts: Plastic, Toxic, Marine Debris

  1. Fantastic stuff! Danielle is an awesome inspiration and a change maker, thankyou for highlighting her awesome work!
    To seriously tackle this issue we need to change the way we do things, introducing a butt refund system would make the most immediate impact, keep butts out of the environment and allow butts to be disposed of as the toxic waste they are!
    We experimented with this concept by offering a 10¢ bounty on butts at a non-smoking beach in Australia.. result? over 4000 butts redeemed in 2.5 hrs..
    Refund systems work. Lets put them in place to tackle the top 5 marine plastic pollution items <3

  2. Pingback: 52.9 Million Cigarette Butts on the Beach | Response and Restoration Blog

  3. I was trying to search for an article on objects that have washed on to Alaska’s coast over years and are used as decorations… that’s when I washed ashore here. :) (I still haven’t found that article I had read years ago but am glad I reached here.)

    I am a city rat from India who has become increasingly conscious of our impact on the environment. However, as a smoker, I have not been able to kick the butt. Even though I know the side effects and have witnessed it in my family… but this bit of information on the cigarette butt not being biodegradable never occurred to me. I am now going to make a big effort to quit smoking — for the environment and my health.

    My question is – even if people don’t flick their ciggie butts or a conscientious citizen collects them – what happens after that? Living in Bombay, I kind of know that most of the garbage ends up going to a landfill or goes down a sewer and into the sea – where animals, birds or marine life will indirectly consume harmful substances – coming full circle to the original problem. What are your thoughts on this?

  4. The bounty seems like a great idea. Back when cigarette companies gave away premiums to colleges, the Eight Northern Indian Pueblos gave away disposable ash trays, but with our own logo — Take Your Ugly Butts Home, http://13c4.wordpress.com/2006/01/16/take-ugly-butts-home/

  5. That was a good idea it everyone of us has own to do will, but we also take our responsible to clean our environment–Just what I read on article http://www.globalchange.org

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