One of the biggest environmental concern is going to ocean pollution, where we have all heard the recent push to eliminate plastic straws from popular use. However, more than the plastic pollution alone that are crowding the ocean, there’s cigarette butt waste. The cigarette butt has largely lost in the shuffle despite being the biggest ocean contaminant.
Ocean Conservatory, an environmental campaigner, sponsored one of the largest continual beach cleanups, where they gather this data:
- Cigarette Butts: 2.4 million
- Food Wrappers: 1.7 million
- Plastic Bottles: 1.6 million
- Plastic Bottle Caps: 1.0 million
- Plastic Grocery Bags: 0.8 million
The cleanups have been collecting trash yearly on beaches since 1986, and as you can see, cigarette butts were by far the most collected trash item.
According to the Cigarette Butt Pollution Project, 5.5 trillion cigarettes are consumed every year, with 90% of them containing a plastic-based cigarette filter. Cigarette filters are made from cellulose acetate, an artificial fibre that takes decades to break down. NBC News reports that two-thirds of those filters are dumped, many of which make their way to oceans and beaches.
Cigarette filters were deployed in the mid-1900s as a marketing campaign by tobacco companies to lessen the growing concern over cigarette smoke hazards. However, the implementation of filters introduced a tremendous amount of waste with no added health benefits.
While cigarette butts are clearly a large issue when it comes to plastic waste, there remain large hurdles as to who holds the responsibility to eliminate the waste. As for now, those who volunteer for beach clean-ups are — cigarette butt by cigarette butt — curbing ocean pollution and its effects on the environment. While laudable, eventually we'll realize their efforts are not enough. The only way this widespread problem can significantly be reduced is through enforced regulations.
Should tobacco companies remove the ineffective filters similar to Starbucks opting to remove plastic straws? Should cigarette smokers be the target of litter campaigns and taxed more heavily per pack as they are the ones improperly disposing of cigarette butts? Or should local cities and governments implement bans on cigarette buts similar to Seattle banning plastic straws?