Cigarette waste: A not so little problem




Although they’re less than two-centimetres in length and weigh less than a gram, cumulatively cigarette filters, or butts, contribute over 700,000 tonnes of waste every year.

They are, in fact, the most littered item in the world, with 4.5 trillion being casually discarded, flicked out of car windows and dropped on sidewalks year on year. In the UK alone cigarette butts account for approximately 30 percent of all street litter, with 120 tonnes (roughly the size of a Blue Whale) of cigarette-related waste ending up on the streets every single day.

These statistics are similar worldwide, and we can clearly see the problem in Guernsey too. As part of our initiative to help raise awareness ahead of World No-Tobacco Day on 31st May, The Clean Earth Trust team have been circling cigarettes in town, and collected more than 300 butts in a single street in just 30 minutes! Town is not the only heavily affected area on the island, our beaches and precious marine habitats are also paying the price. In a recent beach clean at Pembroke, volunteers removed 919 in an hour.

Only a third of butts are properly disposed of, which means the rest eventually, inevitably, end up in our environment, the consequences of which are far greater than many realise.

Most commonly made of cellulose acetate, a type of bioplastic, cigarette butts take years, even decades, to break down. In this time, they continue to release nicotine, heavy metals, and other chemicals into our soil and water before eventually breaking down into microplastics.

A study led by academics from Anglia Ruskin University showed the negative impact on plant growth, with findings indicating that the presence of cigarette butts in the soil reduced the germination success and shoot length by up to a quarter.

Other studies have shown the 7000+ chemicals produced by cigarette butts to be highly toxic to marine and other wildlife and there have been numerous instances where they have been found in the stomachs of fish, birds, whales and other marine animals.

It’s not just the final product that has a negative impact on the environment: the production of tobacco uses up more water and wood, and has more pesticides applied to it, than most other crops and approximately 600 million trees are chopped down every year by the tobacco industry, making it a major contributor to deforestation.

So how does one go about tackling a litter epidemic of this scale? As awareness of the impact butts have on our environment and, indirectly, our own health increases, we’re slowly starting to see various forms of action being taken.

In the US, some cities have introduced restrictions on where you can smoke, or imposed additional fees on cigarette sales to help cover clean-up costs (this can cost local governments millions each year).

In San Francisco, the installation of 100 butt disposal cans, coupled with education campaigns to use them, saw a 60 percent reduction of butt litter.

A trial conducted in New South Wales, Australia, tested four different ways to positively influence butt disposal behaviour. These included pathways to designated bins; encouraging a sense of pride and ownership for a space; positive reinforcement initiatives; and enforcement through fines and increased patrols.

The trial showed that each of these four methods were successful in reducing butt litter, with the pride and ownership strategy resulting in the greatest reduction of 60 percent, although the pathways offered the easiest and most cost-effective solution.

Another successful solution used in both the UK and US is the Ballot Bin ashtray - an interactive solution that reduced litter by 46 and 74 percent respectively.

The Ballot Bin encourages the use of the ashtray by allowing the user to vote on questions such as ‘Who’s the best football player? Ronaldo or Messi’. This system encourages user interaction and is one that can easily be changed to maintain ongoing interest.

As individuals we can also make a difference. Why not join a local beach clean, start wombling or get involved with initiatives like The 4.5 Trillion Project? Collective actions such as these have helped to remove millions of tonnes of waste from the environment and it’s never too late to get involved! To find out more about what you can do to help, take a look at our social media pages or get in touch via hello@cleanearthtrust.org.