We’ve all seen the smoking disclaimer that is played before movies which shows how cigarettes are harmful to human health – causing lung cancer, mouth cancer, and other deadly diseases. So we all know that cigarettes are dangerous for humans, but what about the cigarette butts that are left behind after smoking? Are cigarette butts harmful to the environment? We are going to answer all these questions in this article.
A cigarette butt is the leftover part of a cigarette after being used. It is mainly made up of a plastic called cellulose acetate. Surprisingly, cigarette butts are the most commonly discarded plastic items, even more than straws and plastic bottles. It is estimated that around 4.5 trillion cigarette butts are littered in the environment every year.
Because cigarettes are largely made up of plastic and contain toxic chemicals such as nicotine, arsenic, lead, cadmium, etc., they never fully degrade from the environment. This means that the plastic component of the cigarette can take up to 10 years to decompose, while the toxic chemicals leach into the surrounding soil and water bodies, harming the life that lives there. A laboratory study found that the chemicals released from a single cigarette butt were enough to kill 50 per cent of the aquatic organisms exposed to it for four days.
It is a well-known fact that cigarettes are extremely harmful to human health, but they can be deadly to our environment as well.
How Do Cigarette Butts Affect The Environment
When a cigarette butt is thrown on the ground, it either remains there for years or finds its way into water bodies or the soil. When it stays in water bodies, aquatic animals and birds mistake it for food – more often than not, researchers find cigarette butts inside dead sea birds, turtles, dolphins, and fish. A 2011 study found that the remaining tobacco found in a cigarette butt was more toxic to the aquatic environment than the cigarette itself.
Also, cigarettes contain thousands of dangerous chemicals such as arsenic, hydrogen cyanide, pyridine, etc. So, when they are ingested through smoking, they make their way into our bodies and are toxic to our health. On the other hand, when they are discarded, they leach these chemicals into the soil and harm flora and fauna of that particular area.
Additionally, tobacco farming for cigarettes causes up to 5% of global deforestation, leading to events such as increased global warming, biodiversity loss, and increased air pollution.
Cigarette smoke is also a massive contributor to air pollution – 2.6 billion kgs of CO2 is emitted globally from cigarette smoke. Passive smoking, which refers to the inhaling of smoke by people who are present around the smoker and are not actively smoking, increases the risk of respiratory problems such as asthma, bronchitis, and serious diseases such as lung cancer and stroke.
Another way cigarette butts harm the environment is by forest fires started either by discarding burning cigarettes or by cigarette lighters. For example, a forest fire started due to a discarded cigarette butt in China was responsible for the loss of 300 lives and the destruction of 1.3 million hectares of land.
Thus, cigarette butts not only seriously impact human health but also pose a threat to our environment and the life that lives in it.
Many individuals and organizations are trying to reduce cigarette waste by recycling it or processing it to make it less harmful.
As cigarette waste is a matter of concern, certain companies and organizations are tackling this issue. For example, TerraCycle is a US company that runs a program called TerraCycle Cigarette Waste Recycling Program, where cigarette butts are collected and processed to form plastic pellets which can be reused to make different plastic items. Similarly, an Indian company called CODE also collects cigarette butts from waste-pickers. It recycles them to turn them into plastic-like fibres that can be stuffed into toys, cushions, etc.
Sachi Tungare, a Mumbai-based industrial designer, makes art and sculptures out of cigarette butts that she collects. Her art was presented as part of the Rethinking Plastic program at Dutch Design Week.
At an individual level, the best thing that smokers can do is properly dispose of their cigarette waste – either by throwing it in a dustbin or by shipping it to the above-mentioned organizations like TerraCycle or other local NGOs. Some cities like Vancouver in Canada also carry out cigarette-waste collection campaigns where citizens can volunteer and contribute to reducing the littering caused by cigarette waste.
Of course, the best solution to tackle cigarette waste would be to deal with the root cause and put a complete ban on the manufacture of cigarettes. But since that is impossible, it is up to us as individuals to dispose of our waste responsibly and ensure that we keep our planet clean for our future generations.
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