Putting Litter First: October

Somehow it’s already October, which means two things: the 2021 More Thought, Less Waste Gift Guide will be published soon, and the NHS is running Stoptober to help people kick their smoking habit. Encouraging people to give up cigarettes completely is clearly the best way to reduce the litter caused by smoking while also improving someone’s health and putting money back in their pocketbook.

But why is this so important for the environment?

Cigarette butts are the number one littered item in the world, with approximately 4.5 TRILLION butts littered annually. This is in part because smokers don’t necessarily consider stubbing out a butt and leaving it behind as littering. It’s just a little piece of paper, right?

Wrong. Most cigarette butts are made from cellulose acetate, a type of plastic. This can take ten to fifteen years to degrade, leaching chemicals into the soil or waterway while doing so. Back during the LitterWatch 2017 experiment, the cigarette butts I put outside for a year looked just the same on Day 365 as they did on Day 1, despite facing everything the British weather could throw at them.

Another problem with cigarette butts is that they serve as a gateway to littering other things. According to the Litterbugs guide by CPRE, 42% of smokers think it is acceptable to drop litter (compared to 16% of non-smokers). Anyone who regularly picks up rubbish knows that butts are just one of many pieces of smoking paraphernalia that often find their way into our communities. Cigarette cartons, tobacco pouches, cellophane from the cartons, plastic from roll-up filters, or potentially even the whole filter itself are common. Something new that’s been added to this list over the past few years are boxes from vape cartridges. Just one activity—smoking—leads to a whole mess of potential litter.

There are numerous obstacles along the path to convincing the nation to bin its butts. First is simply overcoming the idea that it’s okay to leave butts behind: cigarette butts are typically not viewed as litter by smokers and non-smokers alike. On top of this are social norms: you do what you see others doing, and, in this instance, the most obvious behaviour is discarding butts wherever you wish. Over time, this has become a well-entrenched mindset that is hard to shift because of the convenience involved.

So, what can be done to encourage smokers to change their habits?

I’ve long been in favour of Ballot Bins, which allow smokers to vote with their butts. However, these bins must be used properly. This means that the questions are updated on a regular basis, the answers shared and broadcast in some way, and they are emptied regularly. They need to be kept bright and fun and placed in locations where they’re going to be seen and used (pubs and betting shops immediately spring to mind!). Another bin-based solution is from Zilch, which produces cost-effective micro bins that allow easy-to-empty bins to be located in prime places such as bus stops.

I also think it’s important to investigate how to normalise the use of portable ashtrays. These are reusable methods of storing butts until they can be disposed of properly. Getting the point across at points of sale—cigarette butts are litter too—is something else that can be considered. Catching people at the most relevant time, with a message that resonates with them, is another piece of the puzzle.

What should this message be?

Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t smoke and friends that once did have long since quit. However, I think it’s necessary to go beyond the information-deficit model—just telling people information they don’t know often isn’t enough to bring about lasting change. With smoking in particular, this is an area where smokers regularly see explicit warnings about the health impact and dangers of their chosen activity: if this isn’t enough to encourage people to quit smoking in general, a blanket statement about the dangers of littering is unlikely to succeed.

One of the underlying themes for the whole of the Putting Litter First series is “Who do you know?” It’s by making others aware of what’s possible that we are able to achieve more within our communities. When it comes to smoking, there are a lot of potential people who can get involved to help bin butts and change behaviour.

For example, can smokers talk to other smokers? I suspect one of the best ways to change the current behaviour is to use in-group policing. This has the potential to be powerful because it bypasses guilt, shame, psychological reactance, and a whole host of other negative emotions by tapping into the idea that “someone like me does X”. Bit by bit, it can start to change the social norm.

Is it possible to find anti-litter champions at pubs, betting shops, hospitals*, and office buildings? These are places where cigarette butts are known to pile up, and deliberately addressing smoking behaviour—whether with a Ballot Bin or another method—may likewise begin to help get the message across. In particular, Karen Spehr and Rob Curnow’s book Litterology highlights that giving smokers a relatively comfortable outdoor place to smoke with well placed and clearly identified disposal facilities can help prevent littering.

Whether you smoke or not, how can you get involved? Share this with those are keen to make a difference—local councillors, business owners who recognise that the pavement shouldn’t be treated as an ashtray, anyone who wants to see butts end up where they belong rather than in our communities.

Why hospitals? I’ve had several people tell me they were waging battle with the Smoker’s Corner at their local hospital due to the mountain of butts present. It appears to be a common problem across the country.


The year-long series Putting Litter First (so we can see the end of it!) is about trying to find a middle ground when it comes stopping litter in our communities. Often, it seems like there’s a false choice presented: those who are working to stop litter can either run a litter pick or they can lobby government for higher fines or for programmes like the Deposit Return Scheme.

The problem with this dichotomy is that most of us are already doing the first bit. We’ve been picking up litter from Chippenham for six years without a noticeable decrease in the amount of rubbish found. On the other hand, waiting for the government to get its act together with higher fines, sensible enforcement, and a proper Deposit Return Scheme feels like an exercise in futility. We can (and we should) campaign for these changes, but, at the same time, we must recognise that the outcome is outside of our control.

Instead, I think there are things that can be done at the community level if enough people are willing to step forward to help make it happen. A big part of this involves making sure that the right people are aware of what tools are available and not re-inventing the wheel. Interested in learning more? Sign up to have the latest Putting Litter First blog post delivered to you on the first of every month.

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