5 ways cigarette butts affect the environment

Darryl Esguerra
PUBLISHED April 23, 2018 09:35 am
Created by Waewkidja - Freepik.com

(Inside Manila) While most people are aware of the health dangers involved in smoking, few seem to realize that cigarettes are also bad for the environment. Cigarette butts may seem small, but they are considered as the most common form of litter in the world.

"From start to finish, the tobacco life cycle is an overwhelmingly polluting and damaging process," states a 2017 World Health Organization report entitled “Tobacco and its environmental impact: An overview." "It is not just about the lives of smokers and those around them, or even those involved in tobacco production. What is now at stake is the fate of an entire planet."

What does all that cigarette waste mean for the environment? Here are the basics about the environmental impact of cigarette butts.

Unsightly everywhere

Multiply the number of nicotine-dependent individuals by the average number of sticks smoked in a day, and you’ve got a lot of cigarette butts. In fact, the number of cigarette butts littered worldwide every year is estimated at 4.5 trillion, that is more than one-third or nearly 38% of all collected litter.


These butts contain more than 7,000 chemicals, such as arsenic (used to kill rats) and formaldehyde (used to preserve dead animals, and humans, too). These chemicals are partially filtered out during the smoking process. When the butts are discarded, wind and rain carry them into the water supply. The toxic chemicals they contain are then leaked into aquatic ecosystems, threatening the quality of the water and marine life.

Made of plastic fibers

It may look like cotton, but 98% of cigarette filters are made of plastic fibers (cellulose acetate) that are tightly packed together, which leads to an estimated 1.69 billion pounds of cigarette butts winding up as toxic trash each year.


The plastic fibers in cigarettes are non-biodegradable! Meaning, they won't organically break down from living organisms.

Two years to decompose

Although cigarettes don’t break down naturally, they can gradually decompose depending on environmental conditions. Estimates on the time it takes vary, but a recent study found that a cigarette butt was only about 38% decomposed after two years.



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