What impact do cigarette butts have on the environment?

We all know littering is bad. It is unsightly and as a result can discourage people from visiting an area, and make residents not care about their community. Because of that, it can have a negative effect on business and on tourism, and thus have an impact on the economy. In turn it can lead to crime and anti-social behaviour. It effects people’s health. And of course, it effects the environment. And, contrary to popular belief, litter includes cigarette butts.

People who drop cigarette butts on the ground often get very upset when they are given a Fixed Penalty Notice for littering. They feel that they haven’t really dropped litter, just a cigarette butt. Yet cigarette butts are legally classed as litter, and for a good reason. In this article we explore the damage that cigarette butts can do to our environment, and why it is so important that we tackle people who drop them in public spaces.

How big a problem are cigarette butts?

Cigarette butts may be small, but they are a massive problem. Next time you go for a walk in a town centre, in a public park, down the high street or even on the beach, take a look around you. The litter that you are most likely to see more than anything else is cigarette butts. 99% of streets in town centres have cigarette litter. In fact, they are the most littered item on earth, and they are everywhere – including on beaches, on pavements, at the side of the road, in rivers, ponds, lakes and streams, in parks and in fields. It has been estimated that, worldwide, 4.5 trillion cigarettes are littered each year. Take a moment to think about that number. As of October 2017, there are around 7.6 billion people on the planet. Around 6 trillion cigarettes are smoked around the world every year. Around two thirds of those are dropped, flicked out of car windows, or discarded by some other way into our environment. That is really quite a shocking statistic. So, when you drop your cigarette butt and think it is just one small cigarette butt, think about the bigger picture.

That is where the problem lies. People think such a relatively small item cannot possibly do much harm. So, a great number of people do it. In fact, 75% of smokers claim to do it, either by throwing them on the ground or out of a car. How many times have you been driving along the road only to see a red glowing object flying out of the window of the car in front?

Cigarette butts account for nearly 38% of all collected litter – more than one third of all litter that is gathered. Collectively, they add up to around 750,000 tonnes of litter per year. So, everyone who drops a cigarette butt is contributing towards that massive figure. And although cigarette butts might be smaller than most other items of litter, they are far more of a problem.

Are cigarettes toxic?

Anyone who smokes cigarettes might want to pay attention to this figure. Cigarettes contain over 7,000 different chemicals. This includes arsenic (a deadly poison), carcinogenic (cancer causing) chemicals, acetone (used in nail polish remover), lead, formaldehyde, pesticides and nicotine. The list goes on and on, and we could write pages and pages detailing the effects of all these chemicals on humans and on animals, but to sum it up - they are highly toxic.

These chemicals leak out of the cigarette butts that are disposed of in the environment, and thus in term pollute the environment even further. The toxic chemicals eventually make their way into the water, either by being discarded directly into rivers, by being washed into the drainage system by the rain, or by being carried into the sea when the tide comes in at the beach. Alternatively, the cigarette butt itself might not go anywhere, the chemicals might just get washed out of it and into the soil when it rains.

However, they get there, the main point is that the chemicals are getting into the water cycle. These poisonous chemicals in the water supply can kill fish and other animals in the water, as well as the birds that in turn eat the fish and the animals on the land, and thus in turn get into the whole ecosystem, poisoning all sorts of living creatures including insects, mammals, and thus ultimately getting into our food chain and affecting us. Can it really have that big an effect? Well, an experiment was carried out in 2014 by soaking one cigarette butt in a litre of water for 96 hours. They found that in that time, enough toxic chemicals came out to kill half of the fresh or salt water fish that would be exposed to them.

Aside from the chemicals leaking out in the water, there are plenty of other ways that it can impact fish, birds, animals, humans and others. Animals and birds may pick them up and eat them, thinking that they are food. Tiny little white things might look like a tasty bite to a bird or to a fish. And what about very small children playing in the park or on the beach not knowing what they are and just picking them up and putting them in their mouth? The number of avenues for cigarettes and their chemicals to get into our food chain is quite staggering when you stop to think about it.

Don’t cigarettes just break down naturally?

Unfortunately, not. That is an argument that is often heard – that cigarette butts are biodegradable and will break down in a few days, but that could not be further from the truth. Many people think that cigarette filters are made out of cotton, but actually they’re made out of tiny plastic fibres called cellulose acetate that are tightly packed together. These plastic fibres are not biodegradable, so they won’t break down naturally because of living organisms. They might instead break down slowly because of the rain and sun (washing the toxic chemicals into the water cycle at the same time), but it is a very slow process. A recent study was carried out looking into this which found that after two years a cigarette butt was 38% decomposed. And if they are broken down eventually, what is the effect? Microscopic pieces of plastic being eaten by fish, birds, animals etc.

So, if your concern is about your park, town or city centre, beach or playground looking unsightly due to litter, then one of your first culprits should be cigarette butts, because unless somebody picks them up or they are washed into the drains by the rain, then the chances are that they will be around for a very long time. The better option would be not to drop them at all.

Isn’t the problem getting better?

The problem has actually been getting worse in recent years. Although there are now less people smoking than there used to be, there are more people smoking outside in the UK since the smoking ban was introduced in 2007. So, whereas before people were more likely to stub out their cigarette butts indoors, in the pub, or in their place of work in an ashtray, now they are having to smoke outside, and therefore more likely to just throw the butt on the ground when they have finished with it.

What does the law say about cigarette litter?

Litter is defined in part IV of the Environmental Protection Act (EPA) 1990, and in Section 27 of the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act (CNEA) 2005. These explicitly state that litter includes cigarette butts, cigars and similar products. So, any laws that apply to littering include cigarette butts – for a very good reason, as hopefully this article has demonstrated. To find out more about the law and littering, read this article.

What is the solution?

The obvious solution is for people to stop smoking! Not only would that help the environment, but it would also be good for smokers’ health as well. But that is a very slow process, and in the meantime, the next best thing is to reduce the amount of cigarette litter. This can be done through education – by providing information like this article to people to show the effects of cigarette litter. It can be done by both carrot and stick – rewarding people who dispose of their cigarette butts correctly (such as via our Bin It To Win It campaigns), as well as punishing those people who do decide to throw their cigarette butts on the ground (as done by our environmental protection officers carrying out patrols in public places on behalf of local councils). Littering has generally become unacceptable in society, but many people don’t consider dropping a cigarette to be litter. The message needs to be conveyed loud and clear in order to change people’s behaviour. Individuals can contact their local representatives, such as local councillors and MPs, to make them aware of the problem of cigarette litter. And we should all be conscious of the impact of littering, and individually all do our bit for our environment.

Kingdom has a proven record of delivering a cleaner, safer and greener environment for members of your community. Last year, over £1 billion was spent cleaning the UK streets. To help reduce this cost to the taxpayer, Kingdom’s Environmental Protection Division deploys fully trained uniformed officers into identified ‘problem areas’ in order to deal with littering (including discarded cigarette butts), dog fouling and other environmental enforcement issues. We operate a range of payment schemes all guaranteeing no cost to the local authority. Instead, our costs are recovered by the Fixed Penalty Notices (FPNs) we issue which have resulted in us raising over £3.3m for local authorities during the last 12 months.

If you would like to find out more about Kingdom’s Environmental Protection service, please call 0845 051 7702 or visit https://www.kingdom.co.uk/services/environmental-protection/

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