As part of our Coastal Conservation volunteer program, volunteers are regularly walking along the beaches of Cape Town’s west coast near Langebaan, participating in bird monitoring surveys and various litter projects, including beach clean ups where they collect, identify and quantify the litter, some of which may be recycled for use in our community projects.
Plastic pollution along the coast is a huge problem and part of this is the huge problem of cigarette butt disposal!
Yes, you read correctly. Cigarette filters are made up micro-plastics and micro-fibres (and some have added charcoal too), therefore cigarette butts are actually plastic waste with additional heavy metals and toxic chemicals (including arsenic in some of the more popular cigarette brands) thrown into the mix. The micro-plastics (cellulose acetate) can break down into smaller pieces but will never bio-degrade or disappear. One solid filter can end up as thousands of tiny fibres being released into the marine environment.
Micro-plastics from cigarette butts will never disappear!
Did you know – cigarette filters do not reduce any risk of harm caused by smoking and are, in effect, quite useless? Filters only deliver less irritating smoke to the smoker, thereby enabling them to smoke more cigarettes per day. They do not even filter out all larger residues. They also enable smokers to take deeper breaths, thereby increasing the risk of lung cancer.
On a recent beach clean up, our coastal conservation volunteers collected as many as 928 cigarette butts within a 250 metre stretch of beach. In fact, cigarette butts are reported to make up an estimated 25-50 percent of all litter collected on urban roads and streets too.
Year after year cigarette butts are the most commonly found form of ocean litter. Discarded cigarettes are also a major cause of bush fires.
These cigarette butts contain all the carcinogens, pesticides and nicotine that makes tobacco use the leading cause of preventable death worldwide. Heavy metals and toxins leached into water from cigarette butts kill fish, birds, whales and other marine animals. Micro-plastics from the butts are also ingested by various marine animals, leading them to feel full but in fact slowly starving them to death – a nightmare for coastal conservation!
Not only that, toxins from the plastics are absorbed into the bloodstream, along with the toxins and heavy metals which they themselves have absorbed. This in turn means that fish that have ingested these plastics in turn become toxic to the humans who consume them. The full effect of plastic pollution on the ocean, I think, is a topic best left for another blog post.
Prohibitions on smoking in enclosed spaces may have reduced indoor pollution and health risks, but this hasn’t helped our environment very much. Environmental conservation and health groups are only now starting to appreciate the damage caused by cigarette butts; from the bio-accumulation of poisons up the food chain, to the damage to commercial fisheries and water supplies. Cigarette waste easily meets standardised test requirements for state agencies to label a substance as toxic waste. It is often ingested by aquatic creatures, wildlife, pets and even children, who suffer serious health problems as a result. Symptoms include spontaneous vomiting, nausea, lethargy, gagging and flushing.
Most people (smokers included) are not aware of what these filters contain and the damage they can cause. We know that cigarettes are harmful to our health but the health impact on our oceans is still not fully understood. This lack of understanding and education is the reason why cigarette butts end up in landfills due to the lack of a recycling infrastructure for cigarette butts.
By 2007, 5.5 trillion cigarettes were being consumed globally every year. Of these, 4.95 trillion are filters, deposited somewhere in the environment worldwide.
Some good news is that the cellulose acetate used in the cigarette filters are the main component of sunglasses, which means that it can be recycled just like regular plastic. This results in a plastic 100% free from carcinogens, bio-toxins and nicotine. The biggest challenge is the cost but if it costs more to collect and process than the material is worth in the open market, it’s considered non-recyclable and no private companies will do it.
Another solution would be for filter making companies and environmentalists meet in the middle by redesigning cigarette filters to have no impact whatsoever on the environment if it were littered or ended up in the marine environment. This still wouldn’t be entirely satisfactory from a conservation point of view as they would still leach out toxins absorbed from cigarettes.
Other options that may have an impact include increasing fines and penalties for littering butts, monetary deposits on filters, increasing availability of butt receptacles and public education. The best option would be to ban the sale of filtered cigarettes altogether on the basis of their adverse environmental impact. This may be an attractive option in coastal regions where beaches accumulate cigarette waste and where smoking indoors is increasingly prohibited.
Of course, the ultimate solution would be for all smokers to quit, as even e-cigarettes aren’t completely environmentally friendly.