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Tiny But Deadly: Cigarette Butts Are The Most Commonly Polluted Plastic

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

While these are good guesses, they are not the correct answer. 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? NO, cigarette butts are primarily plastic.

Cigarette butts are small and tend to go unnoticed but they are hiding almost 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 toxic plastics are improperly disposed of on the street corner or out the car window, they slowly leach toxins into our natural systems, presenting a serious threat to us and our environment.

This is especially true for low-income communities of color. These communities tend to have higher smoking rates due to a long history of targeting by the tobacco industry and face systemic inequities that make it harder for them to access health information and resources. On top of this, they disproportionately receive inequitable waste management services, which can lead to greater effects from cigarette butt pollution.

These tiny toxic butts also cause significant harm to our water sources. It is not uncommon for field researchers to find cigarette butts inside of dead sea birds, sea turtles, fish and dolphins. What’s more, a 2011 Study found that the chemicals leaching from cigarette butts can be lethal to freshwater and marine fish species.

It is imperative to ensure that cigarette butts find their way to the waste bin or sent to a recycling facility. Smokers should consider finding designated smoking areas or carrying their own “pocket ashtrays” to collect their waste.

Like all litter, cigarette butts require labor intensive work to be removed from the environment. That’s where we step in. Working with partners around the globe, The Great Global Cleanup is one of the world’s largest cleanup initiatives. In 180 countries, we have engaged over 20 million volunteers in 2019 and are continuing our efforts in 2020 while complying with COVID safety standards.

We have removed tons of waste, but there is still much more work that needs to be done. With our partners at World Cleanup Day, we are targeting cigarette butt pollution this year. Picking up cigarette butts from your local environment is unpleasant but is a great way to clean your community — you’ll be amazed at how many cigarette butts you can find in any given area. Use gloves and masks for safety.

You can encourage others to do their part as well by reminding people of the dangers of smoking and advocating for more comprehensive waste management systems to your politicians. We are calling YOU to action. Join us on this mission to create cleaner communities and a better future!

Authored by Jake Rubenstein, The Great Global Cleanup And Plastic Campaign Coordinator

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