Piles of Pollution: Are Cigarette Butts a Bigger Problem than Plastic?

cigarette butts plastic

It all started with Sir David Attenborough and Blue Planet II. Together, they brought to light the catastrophic effect that single-use plastics are having on our oceans and the creatures who live in them.

Since then, people around the globe have been actively reducing their plastic usage. We now have a successful plastic bag charge implemented in many countries worldwide. Kenya has even made all plastic bags illegal! We’re also embracing reusable coffee cups and water bottles and ditching plastic straws.

But why have cigarette butts, the most littered item in the world, slipped under the radar?

The Most Littered Item in the World

Disposable bags and plastic straws are, quite rightly, getting a lot of attention. But the findings of 2018’s International Coastal Clean Up show that a plastic bag ban alone isn’t the answer. Nor will a reduction in straws deliver the solution that environmentalists are hoping for.

According to Ocean Conservancy, cigarette butts are the worst ocean pollutant in the world. A total of 2,416,151 cigarette butts were collected during their 2018 coastal cleanup. This was followed by food wrappers (1,739,743), and plastic drinks bottles (1,569,135). Plastic bags came fifth on the list, with 757,523 counted. Plastic straws came seventh, with nearly 2 million fewer found than cigarette butts.

11,926 cigarette butts were picked up along the UK coastline alone. Yet they still aren’t front of mind when we think about reducing pollution.

cigarette butts

What’s in a Cigarette Butt?

Many people, myself included, assume that cigarette butts are environmentally harmless. The paper is biodegradable and the tobacco itself is compostable. But it’s the filter that causes the problem.

The white fluffy bit in the butt of a cigarette isn’t cotton. It’s usually made from a plastic fibre called cellulose acetate. This material can take up to 15 years to decompose, depending on the conditions. During this time the filter can leach toxic chemicals and metals. These contaminate both saltwater and freshwater, potentially damaging ecosystems and harming sea creatures.

Choices for Eco-Conscious Smokers

The environmental issue of cigarette disposal is nothing new. Butts have littered streets for decades. Many tobacco companies are taking steps to make smoking greener by sponsoring collection bins. But if you’re not ready to give up smoking, yet are keen to minimise your environmental impact, what else can you do?

You could think about eco-friendlier filters and papers, and roll your own.

Greenbutts produce natural and biodegradable cigarette filters. They’re made from flax, hemp and cotton and held together with a natural starch-based binder. The filters are produced in a UK factory and the filter breaks down within days.

Greengo is based in Holland and manufacture a range of smoking products. These include chemical free and unbleached filters made from recycled papers.

Bull Brand, a family run tobacco company based in Yorkshire, launched in 2014. They offer a line of competitively priced eco filters. They’re all free from bleach and chemical adhesives. The company claim that their eco filters degrade in water within 30 minutes.

cigarette butt litter

Cleaning up the Mess

Some organisations are already calling for further research into toxic cigarette waste. Campaigners aim to ban tobacco companies from producing harmful and non-biodegradable cigarette filters.

Until then, we can make a conscious effort to reuse, upcycle, and recycle plastics whenever possible. This means reducing plastic consumption even when smoking. To combat the rubbish already swimming in the oceans, you could get involved in local beach cleans. Or even start your own!

If you’re a smoker then consider switching to an eco-friendly alternative. At the very least, ensure that your cigarette butts don’t end up polluting the ocean by disposing of them responsibly. You can also sign up to a zero-waste recycling programme with a company such as TerraCycle.

Cigarette butts are more than an unsightly mess that litter high streets and hedgerows. Don’t let your smoking habit further harm the planet. When you know better, you do better. Now you know that cigarette butts contain plastic, how will you dispose of yours?


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