Cigarette butts stink – and are a major cause of plastic pollution

Around 15 billion cigarette butts are tossed on the ground by South Africans every year, and each one of them is not only a toxic chemical bomb, it is also yet another piece of non-biodegradable single-use plastic.


The Covid-19 crisis has served as a stern reminder that the world cannot leave well-known threats unattended. Understandably health and economic concerns have taken priority but, it would be a grave error to ignore the looming environmental disasters, plastic pollution included. Various actors around the world and in South Africa have called for a “green” recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic to create a more sustainable economy and to prevent one crisis from leading to another.


It is plastic-free July and all efforts to discourage the use and littering of “pointless plastic” will help alleviate the plastic pollution crisis. Yet the cigarette butts or filters, the most littered plastic item around the world, has mostly avoided attention. To tackle the cigarette butt problem, tobacco companies should be held responsible for the entire lifecycle of their products.


An estimated 65% of all consumed cigarettes are littered, with South Africans consuming about 23.49 billion cigarettes each year, over 15 billion cigarette butts are thrown away on streets with many landing in waterways and oceans. From the 1980s, cigarette butts have consistently made up 30% to 40% of litter collected in annual international coastal and urban clean-ups. A recent 2020 study in Cape Town also found that cigarette butts, along with single-use plastic, were the most common type of litter.


The full cost of tobacco to societies and economies should take into account the devastating effects of tobacco on the environment. The entire tobacco life cycle is an “overwhelmingly polluting and damaging process”, from deforestation, erosion, water pollution, biodiversity damage to disposal of manufacturing solid and chemical waste.


Cigarette butts are made from plastic (cellulose acetate) which only degrades under severe circumstances and over several years. A study has found that after two years a cigarette butt was decomposed only up to 38%. They can remain in landfills for up to 10 years and more often wash into the oceans.


Cigarette butts release toxic chemicals into the environment and break into microplastics leading to land, water and air pollution. They inflict harm on wildlife, birds and marine organisms. One study has shown that cigarette butts soaked in either fresh or salt water for 96 hours have a lethal chemical concentration that kills 50% of the exposed fish. The study also states that cigarette butts are one of the largest causes of heavy metal contamination in water.


Presently, tobacco companies save money in not paying for the full cost of tobacco on the environment at the expense of communities. A report by the United Nations Environmental Programme found that tobacco companies would not be profitable if they paid for the environmental impacts of their manufacturing. Manufacturers should be responsible for the cost of designing and managing programmes to collect and process waste instead of burdening government and municipalities. This will help alleviate the plastic pollution crisis and reduce the burden on public funds.


This is also important considering that cigarette butts do not serve any public health benefit, instead, they have been beneficial to the tobacco industry. Filters were invented in response to public concerns around smoking and lung cancer in the 1950s as a “safer” form of smoking. Although they have maintained the name “filter” it has been proven that they do not reduce any impurities or poisons in tobacco products. Filters quickly “became a marketing tool, designed to keep and recruit smokers”, they mask the harshness of tobacco making it easier to start and continue smoking. In fact, the 2014 Surgeon General’s reportfound that filters enabled smokers to inhale cigarette smoke more deeply into lung tissue, increasing the risk of lung cancer.


The 2019 Ban the Butt South Africa campaign called for the elimination of cigarette filters; alternatively, to make the use of fully biodegradable filters mandatory. Shifting the full burden of the management and disposal of cigarette waste to the tobacco industries would be the much-needed push for manufactures.

This would equally resolve the environmental concerns surfacing around the recent electronic nicotine and non-nicotine delivery systems, commonly known as e-cigarettes. Some of these are not reusable, others contain elements like cartridges that are disposable and made of plastic. If a similar throw-away culture translates to these products this could exacerbate the e-waste and plastic waste problem.


There must be a shift away from voluntary environmental corporate social responsibility programmes which are occasionally used by corporations to “greenwash” their image. This allows industries to set minimum standards, allowing for the externalisation of the real costs to society while they paint themselves as environmentally responsible. The costs of these voluntary minimum obligations are dwarfed by the real costs of the environmental footprint. Extended producer responsibility laws should be mandatory and they will put pressure on industries to reduce their environmental footprint, reducing the strain on public funds.


Plastic pollution is set to double by 2030: this coupled with concerns that the Covid-19 pandemic is fuelling plastic pollution with a surge in single-use plastic, requires bold commitments. Plastic pollution should be addressed within a “green recovery” which aligns post-Covid-19 recovery strategies withclimate actions and sustainable development goals. A significant step towards this is holding the tobacco companies responsible for post-consumer waste. Taxpayers cannot afford to fund pollution. DM

Recent Posts

See All
Recent Posts
Archive