In the frenzy to ban plastic utensils, foam containers, straws and single-use bags, the world’s No. 1 most-littered item has been mostly ignored: cigarette butts. Perhaps because they are small in size, two out of every three cigarettes are simply flung to the ground rather than properly disposed of. This adds up to 4.5 trillion cigarette butts every year piling up in parks, cities and oceans. New research suggests that the butts are not just unsightly; they are also negatively impacting plants.
A study published in Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety compared plants grown in soil containing cigarette butts with a group of control plants and found a significant difference. The plants grown in dirt with cigarettes had shoots that were up to 25 percent shorter with root biomass that was up to 60 percent smaller. Similar studies from as early as 1913 found similarly negative effects of cigarette smoke on plants, but few focus on the impact of butts within the soil.
Cigarettes are actually biodegradable but can take years to decompose. In the meantime, the discarded butts are filled with chemicals that, at this point, everyone knows are toxic and carcinogenic.
Since the 1980s, urban and coastal clean-up events have reported that between 30 to 40 percent of the litter collected is typically cigarette butts. It is clearly a major issue in terms of pollution and waste, so why aren’t people outraged by it?
Some environmental advocates argue that filters should be banned completely, since they have negligible health benefits to the smoker. Others argue that a deposit-and-return system could be established, where smokers must return their used butts in order to reclaim a deposit. This scheme seems fairly unlikely, but so did bans on plastic bags or diapers — yet municipalities and countries have successfully put them into effect.
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