Is Resistance Futile? Cigarette Butts Still Dominate Public Lands Litter

Smokers burn through 6 trillion cigarettes every year, and most are tossed into the environment. Butts contain microplastics and harmful chemicals, and new research suggests they may be directly toxic to wildlife. Efforts to curb butt litter have been largely futile.

For the environmental advocacy group Surfrider, a plan to curb the littering of cigarette butts began with energetic optimism. It was 1992, and at the time, cigarette filters were the single most frequently occurring item found in most beach cleanups – a statistic the organization hoped to erase.

However, the Hold On To Your Butt campaign has dragged on and on. Even as the 23rd annual California Coast Cleanup Day in September, 2018, calculates its successes – in terms of tons of trash removed from the state’s shores – on the butt end it continues as a humbling exercise in futility.

“Cigarette butts are still the number one item that we find,” says Shelly Ericksen, the director of the San Francisco chapter of Surfrider’s campaign. “It’s pretty clear we haven’t made a recognizable dent in the numbers.”

In the San Francisco Bay Area alone, smokers are estimated to litter 3 billion used filters every year, and no amount of research, campaigning, legislation and education can stifle this waste stream. There is hardly a city block or a beach, anywhere, that isn’t strewn with cigarette butts. Public roadways are lined with billions. Hikers find them on trails. Birds use them to build nests. Animals eat them.

Mobilized by water, wind and gravity, many or most eventually wind up in streams and storm drains and, eventually, the ocean, where it’s probable they are having a variety of negative impacts that scientists are trying to understand. Laboratory research has shown that cigarette butts – generally made of a type of plastic called cellulose acetate and laced with chemicals – are acutely toxic.

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Ed. note: I volunteer picking up trash on the Blue Ridge Parkway and I can vouch for the prevalence of butts being by far the most common litter. I dispose of at least 50 every time I go for trash removal, and that’s just at one overlook. I know when you throw down one it doesn’t seem like that big a deal, but the problem compounds over time, especially when they get into creeks and rivers and oceans. You may think they are biodegradable, but they definitely are not. Like all plastics, they last for generations.


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