Death by cigarette butt

8th September 2021

Jess, a friend, neighbour and fellow litter picker, recently wrote to me about littered cigarette butts. We see a lot of them on litter picks. They are awkward and time-consuming to pick up. It’s not the first time that she’s expressed concern about them. She manages a farm and is a dedicated to environmental health. She tells me that nicotine is a deadly poison, a nasty chemical to come into contact with. So I decided to do some research. It turns out that nicotine is just the tip of the iceberg.

Around 6.5 trillion cigarettes are bought each year around the world, 18 billion a day 1. Cigarette butts are the most littered item in the world 2. In England they constitute 68 per cent of all litter 3. Health impacts of smoking are now commonly understood. But how about the environmental impacts of cigarettes?

Tobacco is commonly grown in rainforest areas. Forests are hacked down to grow this weed. Synthetic pesticides and fertilizers are used. Curing the tobacco uses further toxic chemicals. Transportation further pollutes and uses resources. So the production and processing of tobacco are highly polluting, contributing to climate change and mass extinction. 4

Tobacco contains nicotine; a deadly poison; a neurotoxin. It has been used for centuries as an insecticide. Tobacco contains many other nasties such as formaldehyde, benzene, arsenic, and hydrogen cyanide 4. Most filters are made from a bioplastic called cellulose acetate 5. After use, filters contain chemicals from the cigarette. They take at least 9 months to break down and that is in optimal conditions. It can take years.

It is then no surprise that cigarette butts poison the environment and its inhabitants. Toxins from littered cigarette butts seep into soil and plants where they can remain for many years 1. When we litter pick, it is clear that areas of land littered with many cigarettes are often sparse or bare. Cigarette butts inhibit plant growth. These toxins are then consumed by animals causing illness and death. 4 That includes pets. 4

It’s not just the soil that’s contaminated, waterways also. 4 US research found that the toxins from just one cigarette butt could kill a fish in a litre of water. 4 Now what are the effects of 6.5 trillion per year? As nothing exists in isolation, the pollution of our environment from cigarettes and littered butts will also affect humans.

So the ideal would seem to be that people didn’t smoke. I smoked for about 25 years and am aware of how difficult it can be to give up. It can be done though and can be immensely positive. If it might help anyone to share my experience: I moved to a vapouriser and then reduced the nicotine levels. Still reaching for the vapouriser at 0mg of nicotine, I realised that the problem was in my mind. Studying Buddhist philosophy helped me make sense of what we commonly term addiction: avoidance. Practise of Buddhist philosophy helped transform my life, as is the case for so many others. Mental health correlated to environmental health to the health of others. As the saying goes, an injury to one is an injury to all.

Depicition of the Buddhist dharma wheel.  It reads, 'Right concentration.  Right mindfulness.  Right effort.  Right livelihood.  Right action.  Right speech.  Right thought.  Right understanding.'
Buddhist dharma wheel

Whilst smoking persists it would be good to find ways to reduce the impacts of littered cigarette butts. Jess has come up with a few good ideas and, in writing this article, I found more. Some of these will take time to implement. Watch this space... For now, if you are a smoker, please ensure that cigarettes are properly put out and disposed of in bins or cigarette pouches. And maybe watch the film, Thank You For Smoking.

Thank you for reading.

Blog by Ben Bell