What everyone should know about cigarette butts

cigarette butts pollution sustainability cleanup community plastic free

What is a cigarette filter made out of? The answer is plastic.

Many smokers and non-smokers are now just beginning to realize that cigarette butts have long been our biggest source of forgotten plastic. All around the world, there has been a movement to trade in our single-use plastics for sustainable alternatives, but no worldwide solution has been found to cleanup and upcycle these tiny, pesky, and most popular microplastics. Cigarette butts can be found all over the world burrowed into our beaches, stuck in the cobblestone of our city streets and even floating around our sea ice

Cigarettes finding their way into our waterways is especially disturbing as one cigarette butt alone has the potential of contaminating 7.5 liters of water in only one hour. Contamination is not the only concern, seabirds and other animals can mistake them for food and end up with a stomach full of butts and other small plastics. This is not only bad news for individual sea life, but also for our food chain

Cigarette pollution is also seen as an ugly addition to our urban and scenic areas and can make even the most beautiful destinations considerably less attractive. It’s not just non-smokers who share this view, even many smokers admit to being disgusted by the sight and smell of wet and dirty cigarette remnants littered on the ground. 

Last weekend, we were confronted with these harsh truths first-hand. 

The Sea Going Green team along with By the Ocean We Unite, Straw by Straw, Ecomundo, the Surfrider Foundation, local Amsterdammers and expats, came together to clean the parks and city streets of Amsterdam. Over the course of 2.5 hours, the 35 of us managed to pick up an estimated 50,000 cigarette butts! This was not easy. At least half of the butts were tediously picked out of the cobble stone lined streets while avoiding cars, trams, bikes and pedestrians. 

Along the way, we handed out reusable pocket ash-trays to smokers, who for the most part responded positively to the gesture. We received a warm response from tourists and onlookers, who curiously observed us abruptly bending over every few feet to pick up a handful of butts and put them into our collecting buckets. 

At end of the cleanup we gathered by Museumplein and counted our group total, which filled up a sky-high tube with littered butts. Out of the 50,000, a portion of these butts (10,000) will be upcycled into a surfboard. Our cleanup was seen as a big success, but what will happen to the countless butts littered around the world? They are not biodegradable, meaning that without action they will likely continue to build up in landfills and our oceans since they can take up to 10 years to decompose. 

Luckily there are already some innovative projects in the works like US-based TerraCycle, who upcycles cigarette butts from designated receptacles into practical items like furniture and park benches. So far, 100 million cigarette butts have been collected by TerraCycle, and while this is definitely something to celebrate, it is only a drop in the bucket for all of the butt pollution out there. In order to do this on a larger scale, there needs to be more support for these types of projects including more funding and investment to make these special disposal areas and facilities to process them. 

On a smaller scale, individual cities and communities can also get involved to mitigate and clean up cigarette butt litter. The best way to influence smokers to stop polluting their butts is by simply spreading awareness and informing them that cigarette butts are made primarily from plastic and will not biodegrade. Once smokers are aware, providing better signage and pocket ashtrays can be an effective way to lessen the chance of pollution since there will be no excuse to pollute. Establishing a buy back program, which has already been tested out in pilot projects, could incentivize individuals to pitch in and help cleanup their neighborhoods, while earning some spare change (as much as $50/ 5 cents per butt). Littering can also be tackled via monetary fines, which will further deter cigarettes from being thrown on the ground. 

The tobacco industry must also be more involved in stopping cigarette butt pollution by taking responsibility for the implications that it has on our environment. This can come in many different forms, but at the very least, by funding projects like TerraCycle or even creating better signage advocating for disposal on receptacles and cigarette packs could help make a difference and keep our streets clean. 

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