As the war on plastic wages on, the most notable items to see a drastic decrease so far have been single use items such as straws, cutlery and plastic bottles resulting in many states banning them all together.
While all the attention is being placed on straws, it turns out that the bigger problem in terms of pollution and threat to the environment – cigarette butts are the most littered item in the world.
Tossing a cigarette butt on the ground is one of the most accepted forms of littering, according to the World Health Organization. About two-thirds of butts are dumped irresponsibly — stubbed out on pavements or dropped into gutters, from where they are carried via storm drains to streams, rivers and oceans.
“Many smokers assume the filters are made of a biodegradable material,” says Elizabeth Smith, who works on tobacco control policy at the University of California San Francisco.
In fact, filters are made of cellulose acetate – a type of plastic that can take up to a decade to decompose.
Most cigarette butts contain a filter, which is comprised of cellulose acetate fibre – a type of bioplastic. And while used butts are more commonly discarded, un-smoked cigarettes had almost the same effect on plant life as the used filters tested. This suggests the damage is caused by the materials found in the filter itself, while the added toxins from the burnt tobacco only increased the effect.
In October 2018, the European Parliament backed a radical proposal to oblige EU countries to remove 50% of plastic from cigarette filters by 2025, and 80% by 2030.
However, EU country representatives later rejected these reduction targets. Instead, tobacco companies will be made responsible for funding awareness-raising campaigns, the provision of public ashtrays and waste collection, and will have to add labels to packets of filtered cigarettes, stating that they contain environment-damaging plastic.
Meadhbh Bolger, resource justice campaigner at Friends of the Earth, says the new laws are “a significant first step” but believes that governments should go beyond these measures and set binding targets.
“We hope that governments will realize that having a planet we can live on is more important than the interests of the tobacco industry.”
Regardless of the solutions, it is clear that cigarettes’ 39-year reign as the world’s number one litter item needs to come to an end. The first step will be raising awareness that cigarette butts are an environmentally harmful litter item that needs to be properly disposed of.