Are Cigarette Butts Biodegradable?

Cigarette butts as hazardous waste
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The rate of cigarette smoking has decreased precipitously in the United States. In 1965, a whopping 42% of adult Americans smoked. In 2007 that proportion dipped below 20 percent, and the latest data available (2013) estimates the percentage of adults who smoke at 17.8 percent. That is good news for people’s health, but also for the environment. Yet, almost all of us continue to witness smokers carelessly toss cigarette butts on the ground.

Let’s take a closer look at the environmental effects generated by that littering behavior.

A Colossal Litter Problem

A 2002 estimate put the number of filtered cigarettes sold in a year, globally, at 5.6 trillion. From that, about 845,000 tons of used filters end up being discarded as litter, winding their way through the landscape pushed by wind and carried by water. In the United States, cigarette butts are the single most common item picked up during beach clean-up days. During the US portion of the International Coastal Cleanup program over 1 million cigarette butts are removed from beaches every year. Street and road clean ups report that butts make up 25 to 50 percent of the items hauled.

No, Cigarette Butts Are Not Biodegradable

The butt of a cigarette is primarily the filter, made of a type of plasticized cellulose acetate. It does not readily biodegrade. That does not mean it will persist whole in the environment forever though, as sunlight will degrade it and break it into very small particles.

These small pieces do not disappear, but wind up in the soil or swept in water, contributing to water pollution.

Cigarette Butts Are Hazardous Waste

Many toxic compounds have been found in measurable concentrations in cigarette butts including nicotine, arsenic, lead, copper, chromium, cadmium, and a variety of polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

Several of these toxins will leach into water and affect aquatic ecosystems, where experiments have shown that they kill a variety of freshwater invertebrates. More recently, when testing the effects of soaked used cigarette butts on two fish species (saltwater topsmelt and freshwater fathead minnow), researchers found that one cigarette butt per liter of water was enough to kill half of the exposed fish. It is not clear which toxin was responsible for the death of the fish; the study’s authors suspect either the nicotine, PAHs, pesticide residues from the tobacco, cigarette additives, or the cellulose acetate filters.

Solutions

A creative solution may be to educate smokers through messages on the cigarette pack, but these admonitions would compete for real estate on the packaging (and for the smokers’ attention) with the existing health warnings. Enforcing litter laws would also certainly help, as for some reason littering with butts is perceived as more acceptable than, say, throwing fast food packaging out of a car window. Perhaps most intriguing is a suggestion to require cigarette manufacturers to replace existing filters by biodegradable and non-toxic ones. Some starch-based filters have been developed, but they continue to accumulate toxins and thus remain hazardous waste.

Despite some regional successes in curbing smoking rates, finding a solution to the cigarette butt litter problem is critical. In developing countries, about 40 percent of adult males smoke, for a total of 900 million smokers – and that number is still increasing every year.

Sources

Novotny et al. 2009. Cigarette Butts and the Case for an Environmental Policy on Hazardous Cigarette Waste. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 6:1691-1705.

Slaughter et al. 2006. Toxicity of Cigarette Butts, and their Chemical Components, to Marine and Freshwater Fish. Tobacco Control 20:25-29.

World Health Organization. Tobacco.