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What’s the environmental impact of cigarette butts? © Getty Images
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What’s the environmental impact of cigarette butts?

Published: 18th May, 2022 at 18:00
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Cigarette butts contain chemicals toxic to wildlife and create 845,000 tons of litter every year.

There are still over a billion smokers worldwide. More than 15 billion cigarettes are bought every day and this figure is actually expected to rise.

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Cigarette filters are made from cellulose acetate, a kind of plastic that takes several years to degrade in the environment. Cigarettes cause 90,000 fires each year in the US alone and are a major cause of forest fires, but the impact of cigarettes on the ocean is even greater.

Discarded cigarette butts wash into storm drains and are carried into rivers and eventually the sea. Cigarette butts are the most common item of litter collected from beach cleanups. Worldwide, cigarette butts amount to 845,000 tons of litter per year.

Cigarette butts are mistaken for food by fish, seabirds and turtles and are frequently found in the stomachs of dead animals washed up on the beach. Even when the butts are simply floating free in the water, the chemicals trapped in the filter during smoking – mainly nicotine and ethylphenol – are also toxic to marine life.

At concentrations of one cigarette butt per litre of water, the toxins are lethal to small fish, and to planktonic organisms such as water fleas at one-eighth of this concentration. The five trillion butts discarded each year are enough to render all the water in China’s Three Gorges Dam completely lethal to aquatic life.

On top of this, cigarette filters may not even reduce the harm to humans from smoking. Some studies have shown that the perceived protective effect of cigarette filters encourages smokers to smoke more or be less inclined to quit. The 12,000 cellulose acetate fibres in the filter may also be inhaled directly into the lungs and trigger respiratory illnesses themselves. The tobacco manufacturers have looked at safer and less polluting filters, but none has found widespread market acceptance yet.

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Asked by: Natalie Ryan

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Authors

luis villazon
Luis VillazonQ&A expert

Luis trained as a zoologist, but now works as a science and technology educator. In his spare time he builds 3D-printed robots, in the hope that he will be spared when the revolution inevitably comes.

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