Cigarette butts are the most littered item in the world. It’s estimated that 4.5 trillion of them are discarded each year, and you certainly don’t have to look far to find one when out and about. I have a few theories as to why people who otherwise wouldn’t litter see nothing wrong with tossing a butt from a car or leaving the remains of their cigarette break on the pavement.
The first is size: cigarette butts are small and “don’t count” as litter. The second is the material: it’s just paper, right? So it will disappear quickly and doesn’t cause any problems. And finally there’s habit. It’s estimated that up to 40% of what we do each day is a result of habit, from brushing our teeth in the morning to dropping our keys in the same place when we come home each night. Why would discarding cigarettes be any different?
Yet imagine for a moment that 4.5 trillion pieces of plastic covered in a chemical cocktail are tossed everywhere across the globe, from beaches and oceans, to parks and local pavements. Wouldn’t this be something to be up in arms about?
Because that’s exactly what cigarette butts are. The vast majority are not made from paper, but a type of plastic called cellulose acetate. If you’ve been following along on #LitterWatch2017, you’ll have noticed that there hasn’t been much of a change to the cigarettes on the board. Yes, the paper is looking a bit tired, allowing the tobacco to show through, but the filters appear practically brand new. They can take up to 10 years to decompose, and while doing so they are releasing toxins (after all, they were once attached to a cigarette!) and posing a danger to wildlife who mistakenly ingest littered butts thinking that they’re food.