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Cigarette Butts and the Environment

March 10th, 2009:

Have you noticed the clusters of cigarette butts in our parks on our streets, sidewalks, beaches, playgrounds and other public places?


Cigarette butts have consistently been one of the most common items found by Clean Up volunteers.  While most people are aware of the health risks involved in smoking, few seem to realize that cigarettes are also bad for the environment.

Cigarette butts may seem small, but with an estimated 4.5 trillion butts (worldwide) littered every year, the toxic chemicals add up. Butts contain hazardous chemicals such as cadmium, arsenic and lead that are partially filtered out during the smoking process. When butts are discarded, wind and rain carry them into the water supply. The toxic chemicals they contain are then leached into aquatic ecosystems, threatening the quality of the water and marine life.


What are butts made of?

Cigarette filters or butts are made from fibrous material designed to trap tar and other toxic chemicals before they reach the smoker's lungs. The filters are made from cellulose acetate (a material similar to rayon) and are coated with paper.  Each butt contains the remnants of

tobacco, paper and a filter. The residue in the butts contains toxic, soluble chemicals. These chemicals are deadly and add to the existing cocktail of environmental pollution.


Environmental impacts of discarded butts:

Cigarette butts have become one of our most important litter issues. The problem has increased in recent years with government legislation for smoking restrictions in public buildings and restaurants forcing smokers outside, where butts are often littered.  An estimated 4.5 trillion cigarette butts are littered worldwide every year.  Not only do littered butts seriously reduce the aesthetic quality of any environment, but they can cause a great deal of harm.  Areas with a high number of littered cigarette butts look dirty and uncared for, which attracts more littering of other rubbish items.  If a butt is simply dropped, it can smoulder for up to 3 hours.  Cigarette smoke contains up to 4,000 chemicals so each second the butt is left alight, dangerous toxins are released into the environment.  Flicked butts can cause fires. When thrown from a motor vehicle into dried grass butts can start a grassfire or even a bushfire.  Fire Authorities estimates that more than 12 fires a day are caused by cigarettes or smoking materials.


The impact of cigarette butts on marine life:

Many people don't realize that when it rains, water flowing through our streets, down our drains and through our stormwater pipes ends up in our harbours, beaches and rivers.  Stormwater is not treated so all litter and cigarette butts carried by stormwater are dumped directly into these waterways. In fact, 95% of the litter on beaches comes from suburban streets through the

stormwater system. This litter reduces water quality and potentially harms our precious marine life. Cigarette butts can take up to 12 months to break down in freshwater and up to 5 years to break down in seawater. Birds and aquatic animals can mistake the butts as food, resulting in serious digestive problems that may lead to death.  Butts have been found in the stomachs of young birds, sea turtles and other marine creatures.  Another serious concern is that toxic

chemicals such as lead and cadmium, which are trapped in the cigarette filter, can leach out in

water. Within just one hour of contact with water, the chemicals begin to leach into the aquatic

environment and threaten the wellbeing of marine life. 


So what can I do?

Always dispose of cigarette butts responsibly. You can do this by using a BUTTsOUT Personal  Ashtray.  These small ashtrays can be clipped on or fit easily into a pocket or handbag. The ashtrays are fire resistant and reusable.   

Businesses and other organizations looking for permanent cigarette butt litter solutions can contact Ecolad Corporation www.ecolad.ca  1-800-665-6263 for their full range of Outdoor Ashtrays, Cigarette Disposal Receptacles and Waste Containers.

You can also help to educate those around you such as friends, family and co-workers about the impacts of littering cigarette butts and encourage them not to litter

Written By: Mitch Awad
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