Just a little cigarette butt? Think again. Six ways smoking is killing our ecosystem

Around six trillion cigarettes were manufactured across the world in 2014. Of this, it is estimated that more than 60% of the cigarette butts were disposed of in the environment.

Up to two thirds of every cigarette smoked is discarded onto the ground, translating to between 340 and 680 million tons of waste tobacco littering streets, drains and water bodies every year. This waste contains over 7000 toxic chemicals.

Most people only think of the human impact that cigarettes have when a smoker is puffing away nearby. But the harsh reality is that cigarettes have an impact on the environment from the time they are grown through the time they are manufactured up until the point that a smoker stamps it out on a sidewalk. In fact, the harmful effects of that cigarette will continue to be felt long after that cigarette is stamped out.

The greatest direct impact that the tobacco life cycle has on the environment happens during the manufacturing phase. This is because chemicals are used to prepare and treat tobacco leaves, metals are involved in the manufacture and shipping of cigarette-making machines and energy is consumed during the manufacturing process.

In addition, in the process of cigarette papers and packaging being manufactured wood pulp and effluent is generated which pollutes the air and the water.

Environmental Health Professor Angela Matthee, based at the South African Medical Research Council, shares six ways that smoking affects the environment.

1. It wastes water

The tobacco manufacturing process is a water-intensive one. A single plant potentially uses millions of liters of water annually. Studies show that the process of cultivating tobacco to produce a single cigarette has a water footprint of about 3.7 litres. This, however, does not take into consideration the water that is used to manufacture the cigarette after tobacco cultivation.

2. It contributes to climate change

The way that tobacco is cultivated is linked to significant levels of carbon dioxide emissions, which in turn contributes to climate change.

3. It worsens our waste

Tobacco Atlas, the well known global tobacco control research platform estimates that over 9000 tons of cigarette butts and packs wind up as toxic trash in South Africa each year.

The waste from tobacco products contain all the toxins, nicotine, and carcinogens that are found in tobacco products. This includes toxic substances such as arsenic, which may leach from landfill sites.

Previous research on landfills and into ground water has shown that components of third hand smoke, such as nicotine and cotinine, have been detected in landfills, landfill leachate, groundwater contaminated with landfill leachate, in reclaimed water used to irrigate farms, and in drinking water.

What’s worse is that in most instances, when this waste needs to be cleaned up, it comes out of taxpayer’s pockets through services borne by municipalities.

4. It aids air pollution

There are two ways that tobacco smoke can contribute to air pollution in cities.

Firstly, tobacco leaf and finished products are often transported with diesel-powered trucks, which in turn is associated with the emission of a range of pollutants, including carcinogenic substances and carbon dioxide. But secondly, the smoke that is emitted into the air when someone lights up a cigarette is particulate matter, which has been associated with arteriosclerosis, which is the the thickening and hardening of the walls of the arteries.

Tobacco smoke pollution is invisible to anyone exposed to it but it can contribute to ambient air pollution in a city. In cities such as Los Angeles and London its contributions to outdoor air pollution has been measured.

5. It busts our beaches

Cigarette butts are the most commonly discarded pieces of waste worldwide. Because of its small size, they are likely to become wedged into cracks and crevices, making this type of waste particularly costly to retrieve;

Global research shows that cigarette butts and other tobacco products waste make up between 30% and 40% of the most common items picked up in urban and beach cleanups worldwide.

6. It suffocates our sea life

Toxicity studies suggest that compounds leached from cigarette butts in salt and fresh water are toxic to aquatic micro-organisms and test fish.

In addition, plastic packaging, especially for smokeless forms of tobacco, have been pinpointed for its harm to marine biology. This problem has led to India banning the use of plastic material to package smokeless tobacco.

This Article was based on research by Environmental Health Professor Angela Matthee from the South African Medical Research Council.

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