4.5 Trillion Cigarette Butts — the Biggest Man-Made Ocean Contaminant — Are Littered Each Year

The Ocean Conservancy has collected more than 60 million cigarette butts from beaches since 1986

Cigarette butts pollution
Photo: Getty

While cities around the country are making strides to combat pollution by banning plastic straws and bags, environmental and health organizations have been focusing on curbing the biggest containment of the oceans: cigarette butts.

Volunteers with the NGO Ocean Conservancy have picked more than 60 million cigarette filters since the group began organizing beach cleanups in 1986, according to NBC News. This figure dwarfs the combined number of food wrappers, eating utensils, plastic bottles and straws that have been recovered by the group along the shores.

According to the outlet, while many smokers will frequently dispose of their cigarette butts directly onto the beach, filters often find their way to the ocean via storm drains, streams and rivers far away from the shore. But once in the water, the butts will slowly dissolve and release the pollutants they absorbed from the tobacco — such as nicotine, arsenic and lead — into the ocean.

As these toxic objects float in the water, they can be eaten by sea animals that mistake them for food, and fragments of cigarette filters have been found in 70 percent of seabirds and 30 percent of sea turtles, the report stated.

“It’s pretty clear there is no health benefit from filters. They are just a marketing tool. And they make it easier for people to smoke,” Thomas Novotny, a professor of public health at San Diego State University, told NBC. “It’s also a major contaminant, with all that plastic waste. It seems like a no-brainer to me that we can’t continue to allow this.”

A research paper co-authored by Novotny said that despite anti-litter campaigns by environmental organizations (and even tobacco companies), some smokers simply prefer to throw cigarette butts onto the ground instead of putting them in ashtrays or the garbage.

Some smokers who participated in industry focus groups said they felt public ashtrays were “disgusting” and didn’t want to approach them, and others said they thought filters were biodegradable or made out of cotton, and it wouldn’t make a difference if they were tossed on the ground or into the garbage. Sadly, others felt that tossing their filters on the ground and extinguishing it with the tip of their shoes was part of the “rebellious” attitude of being a smoker.

This extensive amount of pollution has inspired communities around the world to come up with ways to mitigate the problem, whether in the water or far away from it.

Last year, a historical theme park in France trained six crows to pick up cigarette butts for treats, and a recent viral campaign called the #trashtag challenge saw people around the world take to beaches and cities to pick up trash and cigarettes from their communities.

The environmental group A Greener Future has held the “Butt Blitz” cleanup to organize cleanup parties in cities around the world, and the effort has seen more than 855,000 filters picked up from participating municipalities since its inception.

The city of Hamilton in Ontario, Canada, cleaned up more than 37,000 cigarette butts from the ground during its clean up last week.

“A disgusting total of 37,052 cigarette butts were collected by some amazing volunteers across the lower city today,” the city wrote on their Twitter account on Saturday. “Thank you for your time today, and a reminder to everyone that the earth is not an ashtray!”

According to A Greener Future, 4.5 trillion filters are littered each year, and just a single one is enough to kill fish in a stream. The toxicity levels can rise in the fish that survive, and this can affect human health if they end up on a dinner plate.

With cigarette filters affecting such a large portion of life on the planet, there has been an increasing movement to ban them altogether.

“The idea to get rid of the useless part of this product is finally gaining traction in the public,” California Assemblyman Mark Stone, a Democrat, told NBC. “I hope that the Legislature soon follows the popular sentiment.”

Until then, smokers will have to learn to dispose of the filters themselves for the sake of the planet and their own health. If crows can do it, surely they can, too.

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