World Cleanup Day volunteer Zeki Güzel shares some of the staggering facts and figures on cigarette butt pollution that made him resolve never to toss a cigarette butt into the environment again! Read on to find out more about this still often misunderstood issue.
I’d like to start with my personal story. Like a billion others, I am a smoker. I’ve always tried to be mindful of my cigarette waste, making sure to find the nearest bin or ashtray. But, I have to admit, there have been times when I’ve simply tossed it aside. Until one day, I had a realisation. At any given moment, there must be millions of others just like me—casually smoking their cigarettes then carelessly tossing the butts into their surroundings. And how much damage, collectively, must this do to the planet?
It wasn’t until I started volunteering for World Cleanup Day, that the scale of the problem really struck me. The numbers were just incredible, when you look at the bigger picture. I had been so oblivious, until then—seeing my occasional discarded cigarette butt as something so tiny and quickly biodegradable, and therefore insignificant. But once the magnitude of the issue sunk in, I resolved to be more conscientious.
And, I’m hoping that by writing this, I can inspire many more to do the same! Because while it’s common knowledge that cigarettes are bad for our health, that’s far from the end of the story. It turns out smoking is actually bad for pretty much everything.
So, let’s delve into the uncomfortable truth about cigarette butts. You may be surprised to learn that as much as 98% of cigarette butts produced contain cellulose acetate—a type of non-biodegradable plastic. To get an idea of the scale of the issue: there are currently 1 billion smokers in the world. And if trends continue, there’ll be an estimated 1.6 billion by 2025. As a result, a staggering 6 trillion cigarettes are produced each year! And while it’s hard to nail down a precise figure, according to reports from the BBC, a significant portion of these—around 4.5 trillion—end up being carelessly discarded into smokers’ surroundings. NBC News puts this figure even higher, at 5.6 trillion. Taking an average of the two, we can approximate that around 5 trillion cigarette butts end up in our environment each year, amounting to a whopping 900 million kilograms of waste pollution!
And what’s more, it can take between 18 months and 10 years for a cigarette butt to dissolve in nature, depending on environmental conditions. Who’d have thought?
But how exactly do these cigarette butts end up in nature? In cities where sewage and rainwater collection systems are separate, a cigarette butt chucked casually onto the street has a direct route to the natural world. When it rains, the water sweeps up these discarded butts, carrying them along through local waterways and dropping them into nearby streams, lakes, and seas.
The fibres found in cigarette filters turn into microplastics when they hit our oceans. Under the sun’s UV rays, the fibres break down into fragments that never disappear. And when you consider that, during beach cleaning efforts in 2020, cigarette butts were the most commonly found litter globally, then the number of microplastics generated in total must be simply immense.
What’s more, the issue is not with cigarette butts alone. Plastic lighters also have a heavy toll on the environment—breaking down into microplastics in just the same way.
And what’s so bad about microplastics? Well, they pose threats to living organisms in the aquatic environment. Plus, working their way back to us humans through the food chain, they pose a toxic threat to us too. A single cigarette butt can pollute 1000 litres of water, and when tossed into areas of greenery, harms the development of plants and other living beings in the surroundings.
So, the verdict is clear, cigarettes are a big no for the environment. But it’s not all doom and gloom, as always—there are simple solutions at hand!
A number of countries have taken measures to tackle the issue. Take France, for instance. They’ve taken a serious stance on cigarette waste, imposing a fine of 68 Euros for anyone caught tossing their cigarette butts on the ground.
Meanwhile, in Japan, they’ve created designated smoking areas. By keeping all the smoking in one place, the associated waste gets contained too—and they’ve had great success in reducing cigarette litter as a result.
Over in Spain, they’ve taken a more direct approach. They’re holding cigarette companies accountable for the environmental impacts of their products, by passing on the cleanup bill to them. Companies are now obliged to take responsibility for cleaning up cigarette butts from Spain’s streets and beaches. What’s more, there’s now a ban on smoking on beaches, with a 30 Euro fine for anyone caught breaching it.
Of course, while these methods do help curb the environmental impact of cigarette butts, they’re still not a foolproof solution. For me, the key lies in building public awareness. If we can educate people to become more conscious of the issue, I’m confident they’ll think twice before tossing their butts on the ground. We could start by displaying the harmful environmental impacts of cigarettes on cigarette boxes—which is sure to make smokers stop and think.
And let’s not forget the role that local governments can play! They can help by placing more bins and ashtrays in commonly-used smoking areas and green spaces. It’s a simple step, but can go a long way in solving the problem.
Even better, why not introduce a deposit system for cigarette butts? This is a sure-fire way to reduce the number of butts ending up in nature.
With all these positive solutions, we’re definitely heading in the right direction—but we can’t deny, there’s a long road ahead. While some countries are leading the way in tackling this issue, sadly, many—including my own—are making very little progress, other than a few local associations or NGOs trying to get things in motion. That's why I’m convinced our first priority should be raising awareness within society. Because, no matter how many rules and fines we try to impose, they will often be ignored. But, it’s in a conscious society, where people truly understand what’s at stake, that we’ll see the real change take place. So, let’s talk to our loved ones and peers, join local awareness initiatives, and get on board with cigarette butt cleanups—bit by bit we can help spread the word, and make change happen.