We have seen on the news and most probably also in real life how single-use plastics pollute our earth. But did you know that cigarette butts are the single greatest source of ocean pollution? Every year trillions of cigarettes are tossed out in parks, on streets, in oceans and on beaches. The impact on the environment of these filters is not the only impact on the environment though, this impact starts at the production process of cigarettes.
Globally six trillion cigarettes, of which 5.6 trillion with filters, are produced per year and of these an estimated 4.5 trillion (!) are thrown out in the environment. A report authored by scientists from Imperial College London shows that impacts include climate change from energy and fuel consumption, water and soil depletion, and acidification. The global cultivation of tobacco requires substantial land use (causing deforestation), water consumption, pesticides and labor. The whole process of cultivating, curing, and transporting tobacco needs the use of large amounts of chemicals and other toxic materials. One widely used substance in the production process is Aldicarb. It’s highly toxic to humans, plants and animals and can find its way into waterways and intoxicate the soil for several years. Furthermore, the land used to grow tobacco might be used to grow food crops. Almost 90% of all tobacco production is concentrated in the developing world: of the top ten tobacco producing countries, nine are developing and four are low-income food-deficit countries (LIFDCs), including India, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, and Malawi. However, the majority of cigarette consumption takes place in the developed world. Professor Nick Voulvoulis, from the Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial, said: "The environmental impacts of cigarette smoking, from cradle to grave, add significant pressures to the planet's increasingly scarce resources and fragile ecosystems. Tobacco reduces our quality of life as it competes for resources with commodities valuable to livelihoods and development across the world."
So far the impact of the production of cigarettes. Since as many as two-thirds of the 5.6 trillion filters produced each year are thrown out irresponsibly each year, more and more people are calling for action. And for good reason. The filters in cigarettes are made of cellulose acetate, tiny plastic particles that take 10-15 years to decompose. And they serve no use. According to a World Health Organization (WHO) report, cigarette filters were created in the 1950s by the tobacco industry in an effort to make smoking a “healthier” alternative to unfiltered cigarettes. But research suggested that smoke-bound carcinogens couldn’t be adequately controlled. Then “filters became a marketing tool, designed to recruit and keep smokers as consumers of these hazardous products,” according to research by Bradford Harris, a graduate scholar in the history of science and technology at Stanford University. The filters contain harsh chemicals like nicotine, arsenic and heavy metals, which leach into and accumulate in the environment. Cigarette filters pose a threat to wildlife, who mistake them for food and ingest them.
Different initiatives have seen the light, but non have of them made it to legislation on filters. In California a ban on cigarettes with filters was proposed, but the proposal didn’t come out of committee. A New York state senator has written legislation to create a rebate for butts returned to redemption centers, but that idea also didn’t make it. San Francisco has been the most successful in raising a pack with USD0. 60 to raise approximately USD3 million a year to help cover the cost of cleaning up discarded cigarette filters. Also tobacco companies themselves have tried to come up with solutions to the mass littering, fearing that they would be held responsible for the huge amount of filters in the environment which would lead to greater regulation of cigarettes. But so far no idea has been able to change the “butt flicking” behavior of most smokers.
Mervyn Witherspoon, a British chemist who once worked for the biggest independent maker of acetate filters, said the industry’s focus on finding a biodegradable filter “came and went, because there was never a pressure to do it.” Now she works as a technical adviser to Greenbutts, a San Diego-based startup founded by Tadas Lisauskas and architect Xavier Van Osten. Green Butts has developed a filter made of organic materials that will quickly break down in soil or water. The filters are composed of Manila hemp, tencel, wood pulp and bound together by a natural starch. Their product ready for market, and can be delivered for a reasonable price if mass produced, but to be able to really take off, the company needs a boost from the government.
Until today, legislators who back proposals of banning cigarette filters say their attempts have had trouble gaining ground with fellow lawmakers, because many of them receive campaign contributions from the tobacco industry. Thomas Novotny, a professor of public health at San Diego State University, hopes legislation will become reality if environmental organizations like the Ocean Conservancy and the Surfrider Foundation can find a common cause with health-oriented organizations like the American Cancer Society. Furthermore, public momentum for a ban on cigarette filters is increasing as more people come to understand the environmental and health impacts they have. One thing you can do now about cigarette litter is to organize a cigarette butt cleanup. Cleanups can help increase awareness about the extent of cigarette butt pollution and why it’s important to stop cigarette litter. And please tell your friends to stop smoking. Best for their own health and for everyone else’s health.