The ecological harm of cigarette waste is not something to toss aside

“Why are smokers largely perfectly fine with throwing cigarette butts on the ground when (I think) they wouldn’t throw an equivalent piece of trash on the ground?” Asked a reader identified only as “Jamison,” to advice columnist Drew Magary in the popular sports and culture magazine, Defector.

Magary’s answer is straightforward: “Because it’s cool.” He asks the reader to imagine a self-possessed rebellious smoker finishing a drag of a cigarette and then looking around for an appropriate trash receptacle. “No,” he says. “You flick that bad boy into a nearby alley and then you walk away.”

Almost as an afterthought he adds, “By the way, I have always assumed that cigarette butts are biodegradable, hence making them ‘safe’ to litter. This is not true.” Magary acknowledges that this was probably a naive assumption given the past actions of tobacco companies. He says, “It’s like Charles Manson knocking on your door and asking to come in because his car just broke down, and then you let him in.”

Magary is not alone in his tendencies. According to a 2020 Keep America Beautiful study, cigarette butts are the most littered item in America, with an estimated 4.5 trillion littered annually, worldwide. In total, they comprise about one fifth of all littered items. The filters (that cause cigarettes to have a butt) contain heavy metals, carcinogens, and cellulose acetate, which degrade into microplastics.

Thus, when cigarette waste clutters sidewalks, subway platforms, parks, and rivers, it potentially compromises groundwater and local crops, as well as impact wildlife. These impacts are complex and not always wholly bad. Scientists have observed birds incorporating littered cigarette waste into their nests, and though residual nicotine has been shown to alter their DNA, it also acts as a pesticide to the colony of fleas and parasites that live in their feathers. Once cigarette filters contaminate local waterways, however, they impact all levels of the food chain: introduced microplastics and chemicals permeate microorganisms, clams and oysters absorb the microorganisms, and then birds and mammals — potentially including humans — eat the oysters.

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Cigarette waste is also regularly consumed by beloved pets, such as dogs. Both nicotine and marijuana are poisonous to dogs, and the American Kennel Associations recommends contacting your veterinarian immediately if you suspect your dog has ingested a cigarette butt.

Littered cigarette butts can also easily end up in the hands (and mouths) of small children. In 2022, Gothamist reported Poison Control receives hundreds of calls annually reporting cases of cigarette butt ingestion, about 90% involving children under 2 years. A single milligram of nicotine can be toxic to infants (one cigarette butt contains between 5 -7 milligrams of nicotine), with symptoms including nausea, vomiting, dizziness, tremors, and seizures.

Eddie the Eagle sweeps cigarette butts off the streets of Brooklyn, to add to a TerraCycle collection box. Photo: Will Hasty/Brooklyn Eagle

In a 2022 blog post for local environmental organization, Riverkeeper, local organizer with the local “No Butts” campaign, Joyce Bialik, remembers being “shocked” at the sheer quantity of cigarette buts on a Manhattan sidewalk while collecting garbage with a neighbor. Bialik regularly leads litter walks dressed up as a cigarette butt to raise awareness of the prevalence of cigarette litter and its impact. Her efforts are critical because a 2022 study on the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of college-age smokers on cigarette litter, suggests that many college-aged smokers, much like Defector columnist Drew Magary, believe that cigarette filters are biodegradable. The same study also found that this belief is correlated to an individual’s likelihood to litter.

Though Bialik sees her work cleaning-up litter as a temporary intervention to “divert [cigarette waste] from the river and ocean,” new solutions are urgently needed. “Since each day brings new butts,” she says, “we need a way to eliminate butts altogether.”

One potential solution is Bill 1278, currently before the New York State Senate Health Committee, which would prohibit the sale of cigarettes with “single-use” filters and single-use electronic cigarettes, complimenting the state’s effort to ban other single-use plastics, such as food utensils. The bill is supported by the “No Butts” campaign and the Manhattan Solid Waste Advisory Board; they are seeking more support from other like minded local environmental organizations.

Another way to mitigate the impacts of cigarette waste is to dispose of it properly, and, critically, to make it easy for others to dispose of properly. American recycling company, Terracycle, has worked with national anti-littering not-for-profit, Keep America Beautiful, to recycle cigarette waste for about a decade. Terracycle’s Cigarette Litter Prevention Program includes advocating for the passage of local anti-littering laws, installing proper cigarette receptacles, and distributing portable ashtrays to adult smokers. In areas where the Cigarette Litter Prevention Program is implemented, Keep America Beautiful reports a 50% reduction in cigarette litter.

Eric Ascalon, Director of Community Development and Strategic Partnerships at Terracycle, explained the partnership: “We work with [Keep America Beautiful] to distribute, free of charge, […] permanent cigarette receptacles that are installed in business districts, main streets, parking lots and parks, along boardwalks and such and such.”

Eddie the Eagle with a box of cigarette waste ready to be donated to TerraCycle for recycling. Photo: Will Hasty/Brooklyn Eagle

Participants in the program, ranging from individual community members, to local business owners, to partnering municipalities, ship the contents of the receptacles back to Terracycle. Terracycle then separates out the plastic and safely disposes of any residual harmful chemicals.

The plastic from cigarette filters are recycled into shipping palettes, handles for garden tools, and outdoor furniture, such as park benches. To date, the program has diverted over 200 million cigarette butts for recycling. “We’re taking [cigarette waste] and we’re giving it a new life by creating a new product out of it,” Ascalon says.

Though smoking rates among U.S. adults continue to decline, it is unlikely, and, for many, undesirable, for smoking to disappear entirely. As a result, community members and local legislators are better off collaborating on holistic solutions to reduce cigarette butt litter, such as anti-litter education, effective regulation, and improved infrastructure for disposal and recycling, to reduce harm and mitigate butts’ environmental impacts.

This article originally appeared on BrooklynEagle.com.


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Chrisaleen Ciro
Chrisaleen Ciro
Chrisaleen Ciro is a journalist covering environmental issues and MA candidate at the New School. She also writes the “Knife Bloc,” a newsletter covering the intersection of food and politics in NYC.
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