Cigarette butts: Tiny weapons of mass (marine life) destruction

With 6 trillion cigarettes produced each year, is it surprising that cigarette butts are the most found form of ocean litter?


Source: Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Smoking is injurious to health; this now holds true not just for the smoker but the entire bioshphere as well because smoking not only affects the smoker but disturbs the balance of the entire ecosystem, right from its production all the way to its disposal. With 6 trillion cigarettes produced every year, is it really surprising that cigarette butts are the most found form of ocean litter?

We track the environmental impact of cigarettes, tracing it from its disposal right back to its production.

Cigarette disposal

flickr cc Bradley Gordon

flickr cc Bradley Gordon

The environmental cost of cigarette disposal is huge because cigarette butts are non biodegradable. 1.69 billion pounds of these butts wind up in the oceans as toxic trash each year and pose grievous threat to all marine life.

Nicolas Mallos, director of Trash Free Seas Program at the Ocean Conservancy says, “Most people are not aware of the fact that a cigarette filter is comprised of thousands of little particles of plastic. A single solid filter can be dispersed off into thousands of tiny pieces of fibres into the marine environment.” The cigarette filters are made up of cellulose acetate, which is not bio degradable as it breaks into smaller pieces but never disappears from the environment. Cellulose acetate is photodegradable which means that it will break down when exposed to UV rays; however the complete degradation takes around 10 years.

The national Cigarette Butt Advisory Group (CBAG) in the U.S. has made the recommendation to place cigarette butts on the list of hazardous waste.

flickr cc toxicbutts

flickr cc toxicbutts

Cigarette butts are more than mere litter as they severely affect marine life as well. Right from bio-accumulation of poisons up the food chain to damage to the commercial fisheries and water supplies, everything is caused by the disposal of these cigarette butts. This waste persists in the environment for a long time and mostly ends up inside aquatic creatures, wildlife, pets and even small children. The cigarette butts leach toxins into the water. According to a report by the Clean Up Australia, cigarette butts have been found in stomachs of young birds, sea turtles and many other marine creatures. During rains, the cigarette butts lying in our streets and gutters are washed in to harbours, rivers and beaches releasing toxins into the ocean.

flickr cc Mike Linksvayer

flickr cc Mike Linksvayer

Cigarette consumption

flickr cc felixtsao

flickr cc felixtsao

The two chemicals that pollute the atmosphere, methane and carbon dioxide are both present in cigarette. Smoking worldwide releases about 2.6 billion kilograms of carbon dioxide in the air and about 5.2 billion kilograms of methane every year. According to the World Health Organization, “Although the global share of agricultural land used for tobacco cultivation is less than 1 percent, its impact on global deforestation is 2-4 percent, making a clearly visible footprint for climate change.” Cigarette butt filters trap the dangerous by-products of smoking by accumulating the particulate dangerous smoke components and 165 toxic chemicals.

Cigarette smoke contains a radioactive element polonium 210. One research study shows that a person who smokes 20 cigarettes a day receives a dose of radiation each year equivalent to about 200 chest x-rays! Cigarette smoking is also a financial burden in many low income families. Many studies have shown that in the poorest households in low-income countries as much as 10% of the total household expenditure is on tobacco.

Cigarette production

tobacco leaves flickr cc Llima Orosa

tobacco leaf
flickr cc Llima Orosa

Tobacco is grown in more than 100 countries of the world but most of the raw tobacco leaves and manufactured cigarettes are produced by China, United States, Brazil, Turkey and Indonesia. Countries like Malawi, Korea, Macedonia, Moldova, and Lebanon devote more than 1% of their agricultural land to tobacco leaf production which is huge. Around 5% of all deforestation caused in Africa is caused by tobacco production. Tobacco accounts for 20% of deforestation in Malawi, where the ancient dry forests of the miombo highlands are particularly under severe threat.

Nearly 5 million hectares (600 million trees) are destroyed every year to provide fuel to dry tobacco. To put it in perspective, precisely one tree is destroyed for every 300 cigarettes. Once the tobacco is ready to be cut, many machines are used to cut it and prepare it for curing. The entire curing process requires either special furnaces or wood burning fires in order to bring it to the right balance of moisture for smoking. Statistics say that globally, tobacco curing requires 11.4 million tons of solid wood annually.

Not only that, cigarette manufacturing generally requires about four miles of paper an hour just for rolling and packaging cigarettes. All of this releases harmful chemicals into the air causing large scale air pollution.

Tobacco being a sensitive plant is also prone to many diseases. Owing to it, up to 16 applications of pesticide are recommended during one three-month growing period. Aldrin, Dieldrin and DDT are among the harmful chemicals used. Methyl bromide which is used as a fumigant in developing countries contributes significantly to ozone depletion and is used on a large scale in the tobacco growth. Tobacco is a potassium-hungry crop and absorbs up to six times as much as other crops which leaves soil in poor condition for essential food and cash crops.

With the combined environmental cost of a cigarette’s production, consumption and disposal, the question is, what are we going to do about it? Because while to smoke or not to smoke remains a question of personal choice or freedom, its effects on the environment are not restricted to just personal loss of health, but also lives of millions of people and marine animals!


  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
A dreamer with a singular expression - Smile! Sanket is a media and journalism student at Symbiosis International University. When not writing, you can find him sipping coffee and reading entrepreneurial, political and leadership books. more

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  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
A dreamer with a singular expression - Smile! Sanket is a media and journalism student at Symbiosis International University. When not writing, you can find him sipping coffee and reading entrepreneurial, political and leadership books. more

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