Effects of Cigarette Litter on the Environment

In rivers, beaches, and waterways, cigarette waste is the most commonly found litter. The filters created by these products are not able to biodegrade, but they do experience photodegradation—ultraviolet radiation causes them to break down into smaller pieces.

Laboratory studies have shown that a single cigarette butt can leach toxic chemicals to fresh and saltwater fish.

Water Pollution

Cigarette and e-cigarette waste can pollute the environment with toxins such as nicotine, heavy metals and pesticide residues. Whether dropped on streets or sidewalks or thrown into the water, the dispose of cigarette butts do not biodegrade. They can be carried as runoff to drains that empty into rivers, beaches and oceans. In addition, the cellulose acetate plastic used for cigarette filters can photodegrade into tiny microplastic bits carried along coastlines and in waters. These small particles are mistaken for food by wildlife and can be ingested, or they may get stuck in the gills of fish or other marine life. In a laboratory study, a single cigarette butt soaked in a liter of water leached out enough chemicals to kill 50 percent of freshwater and saltwater fish exposed to it for 96 hours.

Adding cigarette butts to the massive pile of human-made waste in oceans, lakes and rivers can have far-reaching environmental and economic costs. While some tobacco companies promote their eco-friendly practices, it is clear that more needs to be done to reduce the amount of tobacco litter. Implementing a deposit-return program similar to the bottle bill that has reduced waste from disposable bottles and cans, or charging a fee on e-cigarettes to encourage responsible disposal, could help cut back on the blight caused by these harmful items.

Air Pollution

Cigarette butts and tobacco product packaging create a huge environmental blight worldwide. Since the 1980s, they have consistently made up 30 to 40 percent of items collected by international coastal and urban cleanups. These discarded filters, made of cellulose acetate or plastic, are non-biodegradable and do not disintegrate when exposed to the elements. Because of their size and brittleness, they add to landfill demands and municipal waste disposal costs. They also significantly contribute to storm drain trash, often dumped in rivers and oceans. They also leach organic chemicals into the soil and water, which is toxic to wildlife and plants.

A single cigarette butt can contain more than 165 harmful chemicals. These toxicants leach into soil and water, poisoning fish, seabirds and turtles that ingest them. These chemicals can also build up in the food chain, eventually affecting humans. Because cigarette butts are made of plastic cellulose acetate, they contribute to the millions of tons of plastic debris entering our oceans yearly. These butts are blown, washed or otherwise carried by winds to shorelines, beaches and wetlands, where they join the world’s massive litter collection. They are also mistaken for food by fish, seabirds and turtles that wash up on beaches. These animals are then poisoned when ingesting the butts, causing illness or death.


Cigarette butts are non-biodegradable and comprise 30-40% of items collected in environmental cleanups. They significantly contribute to beach and waterway litter, especially in the US, where they can be found stacked up on shorelines, dumped into rivers and carried out to the oceans. The tobacco industry clears land to grow its product, depleting the earth of nutrients that plants need to survive. It can also lead to erosion, climate change and cause water pollution from runoff. E-cigarettes containing metal circuitry, single-use plastic cartridges and batteries can pose an even more serious threat as they do not break down in the environment. These discarded e-cigarettes are commonly found along beaches and waterways and can cause harm to wildlife when they are ingested.

Cigarette litter increases costs to municipalities, businesses, schools, parks and other public spaces for the workforce and equipment required to clean up this waste. In addition, local economies suffer when tourists are turned away from beautiful beaches and other tourist attractions by unsightly public areas covered in cigarette trash. Many communities have already implemented a bottle bill or deposit-return scheme that reduces the waste from disposable bottles, cans and plastic bags; a similar waste fee for cigarettes could be introduced to curb this source of unsightly litter.

Climate Change

Cigarette butts are often discarded on the ground. Still, they can also get carried away by wind or rain into streets and other public areas, where they’re washed into storm drains and eventually end up in streams, rivers, lakes and oceans. Because they’re made of plastic, the cigarette filters don’t biodegrade, and they can be ingested by marine creatures that have no choice but to eat them. Ingestion of cigarette butts can cause life-threatening illnesses in fish and other sea life. Cigarettes and their packaging create 2 million tons of litter annually. While some tobacco companies attempt to greenwash their products by promoting their efforts to reduce butt litter, their actions don’t go far enough. The companies still produce and market their products, which create waste in the first place, and they need to restrict how their customers dispose of them. Although cigarette smoking has decreased, cigarette butts are still common on beaches and other public spaces. They release toxic chemicals and microplastic fibers that are harmful to marine animals. To reduce this hazard, environmental groups have called for a ban on the cellulose acetate (a type of plastic) used in cigarette filters. Similar policies, such as a deposit-return system for plastic bottles and other containers, have greatly reduced trash in many communities.


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