The Great Global Cleanup

Tiny But Deadly: Your Butt on Plastic

If I asked you what the most common form of plastic pollution is, what would you say? Plastic bottles? Straws? Bags? 

All good, but incorrect guesses. Cigarette butts are actually the most abundant form of plastic waste in the world, with about 4.5 trillion individual butts polluting our global environment. 

But wait, aren’t cigarette butts made of cotton or paper? 

In fact, cigarette butts consist primarily of plastic and while they may be small so tend to go unnoticed, you will find them practically everywhere. Contrary to what many believe, cigarette butts are not harmless. They are made of cellulose acetate, a man-made plastic material, and contain hundreds of toxic chemicals. While cigarette filters, or the plastic part of butts, can take up to 10 years to completely degrade, the chemicals they release can remain in the environment for many more years beyond the life of the cigarette butt itself.

These lingering toxins include arsenic (also used in rat poisoning), lead (a poison that can affect the brain development of children), and nicotine. When these chemicals are improperly disposed of on the street corner, out the car window, or down a drain they slowly leach toxins into our natural water and soil systems, presenting a serious threat to people and the environment. 

This is especially true for low-income communities of color which tend to have higher smoking rates due to a long history of being targeted by the tobacco industry. Additionally, these communities  face systemic inequities that make it harder for them to access health information and resources when they fall ill. As if that weren’t enough, they also disproportionately receive inequitable waste management services, which can lead to greater effects from cigarette butt pollution, such as contaminated water ways. 

A 2022 study explains the effects of cigarette butts on marine life. Animals constantly ingest these plastics, which provokes serious health risks, including suffocation and increased mortality. The same research also explains how microplastics from cigarette butts have been found in human tissues, raising concerns about their potential health impacts. It is imperative to ensure that cigarette butts find their way to the waste bin or get sent to a recycling facility. Believe it or not there different programs such as TerraCycle that convert the acetate from butts into different things such as ashtrays and shipping palettes. Smokers should consider finding designated cigarette disposal units whenever they are not at home and smoking or even consider carrying their own “pocket ashtrays” to collect their waste. 

Cigarette butts are by far the largest single type of litter by count. Since the 1980s, cigarette butts have consistently accounted for 30-40% of all items picked up in annual international coastal and urban cleanups. This further stresses the need for comprehensive approaches to not only managing waste, but also controlling tobacco use and mitigating its broader environmental impacts.

Moreover, the new World Health Organization report states that the environmental impact of tobacco goes beyond littering with cigarette butts. Tobacco farming contributes to nearly 5% of global deforestation, with 200,000 hectares of wood biomass lost per year.

Like all litter, cigarette butts require labor intensive work to be removed from the environment. That’s where we step in. For five years, EARTHDAY.ORG has been driving cleanups worldwide through The Great Global Cleanup. Since 2019, we’ve seen 91 million people from 211 places, including 95% of the countries in the UN, come together to clear out a whopping 543,704 tons of waste. That’s over 1% of the world pitching in!

We have removed tons of waste, but more work remains to be done. We are continuing our efforts in 2024, and you can join us on this journey by signing up to either join a create your own clean up event. You can encourage others to do their part as well by reminding them of the dangers of smoking and by advocating for more comprehensive waste management systems.

We are calling on you to take action. Join us on this mission to create cleaner communities and a greener future.