NOAA's Marine Debris Blog

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Cigarette Butts and Cigar Tips: Flicked but not Forgotten

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By: Leah Henry

For most people, dropping candy or food wrappers on the ground feels wrong and although we have made great strides in litter control and behavior change, littering of cigarette butts and plastic cigar tips continues to be commonplace. Look around the next time you’re walking down any street and you will find them.

According to data collected by the Alliance for the Great Lakes through Adopt-a-Beach (AAB) cleanups in 2013, Northeast Ohio reported the most plastic cigar tips found during cleanups in the Great Lakes region. Plastic cigar tips accounted for 37% of the total trash collected.

AAB found that smoking-related litter, including cigarette butts, butane lighters, cigars tips, and tobacco packaging, accounted for 58% of all marine debris items collected on South Carolina beaches in 2013; cigarette butts alone accounted for 55% of all items. That translated to a total of 30,987 cigarette butts (South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control – Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management).

In a study conducted by Keep America Beautiful (Schultz and Stein 2009) their results found that 37.7% of the litter found on U.S. roadways was tobacco products and that the overall littering rate nationally is 65% for cigarette butts. During the NOAA Marine Debris Program Great Lakes Educator Workshop in Ohio, a handful of educators managed to collect 58 cigar tips and 27 cigarettes/filters in two hours, on a short stretch of beach.

Where do they all go? Runoff flows into rivers and streams, bringing 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. And like other forms of plastic, they do not biodegrade, and can persist in the environment for a long time.  Additionally, consumption of cigarette butts by unsuspecting 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.

What can you do? Organize cleanups in your local community and log your findings with the Marine Debris Tracker App! Engage your friends, family, and community in spreading awareness about litter. And if you smoke, place it in a proper receptacle (Terracycle: Cigarette Waste Brigade).

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.

One thought on “Cigarette Butts and Cigar Tips: Flicked but not Forgotten

  1. As an over-arching question, WHY aren’t cigarette filters biodegradable? (I already understand that on the molecular level natural systems existing inside organisms on planet earth at this time lack the enzymes to degrade artificial hydrocarbon polymers – as with plastic deck chairs, plastic bags, plastic rope, or plastic Star Wars(TM) figurines…) But unlike anything George Lucas(TM) ever manufactured, it seems like cigarette filters COULD be different than they are now. So why aren’t they?

    Is plant-derived cellulose too expensive? not fit for purpose? And IF plant-derived/bio-identical cellulose were to be used for cigarette filters, would they be biodegradable in ocean water conditions -ie.. are there naturally-occurring, cellulose-digesting organisms that could eat a naturally-occurring cellulose polymer filter?

    In other words, do we simply lack the will (or the mandate) to use plant cellulose for manufacturing cigarette filters, and if we changed, would something already living be able to eat them? So beyond the social engineering issue of proper butt disposal behavior, could pressure to change manufacturing practices lead to harm reduction via an ‘edible cigarette filter’?

    Hey! For you today, a rare thing – a word bouquet – a short story just-now-inspired by this edition of the newsletter!! Hopefully more inspired BY trash than being OF it – OK, here goes, in one take:

    She looked.
    He looked.
    Their eyes met.

    She tossed her hair.
    He tossed his butt.
    Together they left.

    And now his legacy remains for the ages.

    The end.
    By Mary.

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