On the beach or cityscape, cigarette butts can be seen everywhere. An estimated 4.5 trillion filter-only cigarettes are smoked and butted annually. More than half of these butts—65%—are not discarded in a trash can or ashtray. Unused cigarette filters contain 4,000 compounds, many of which are harmful, while smoked cigarettes can include 7,000 distinct chemicals.
Microfibres and substances that seep from cigarette butt filters are hazardous to aquatic larvae, researchers at the University of Gothenburg have found in a study.
Cigarette filters are the world’s most common form of litter. According to a new study, the filters leak thousands of toxins and plastic fibres that are toxic to aquatic larvae as it contains thousands of toxic chemicals and microplastic fibres; it’s not the only piece of plastic that’s being discarded into the environment.
It turns out that the toxins cause a 20% increase in mosquito larval mortality. Previous studies have demonstrated that many other aquatic creatures are negatively impacted by the poisons in the filters. For instance, fish can perish if they are exposed to levels of pollutants equivalent to just two cigarette butts in one litre of water for four days.
Bethanie Carney Almroth, Professor of Ecotoxicology at the University of Gothenburg, said, “Cigarette filters are also a major source of the microplastics that find their way into our environment – something we know has a major negative impact on biological life. The EU has already classified cigarette filters as hazardous waste.”
But more is needed just to put out more ashtrays. Scientists also observed the behavior of smokers when it’s time to put out their cigarettes. Despite there being nearby ashtrays, it turns out that many individuals still put their cigarettes on the ground.
Professor Carney Almroth said, “The clean-up costs the municipalities millions of kronor, but there will still be many cigarette butts in the environment. We are now conducting a survey of plastic litter across all of Sweden with the aid of community science in what we’re calling the Plastics experiment. That way, we can work with school children and others to get better figures on where and how many cigarette butts with filters are found in the environment, in addition to other problematic plastic products.”
“There are any good arguments at all for filters to remain a component of cigarettes.”
“Cigarette butts are not just the most common litter item in the world, they are also just a marketing ploy that do little to protect the smoker, as many people believe they do.”
“That’s why they have to be taken off the market entirely. It’s not the right approach to focus on making tobacco producers pay for cleaning up the filters. The problem should be prevented in the first place, rather than cleaned up later.”
- Nitschke, T., Bour, A., Bergquist, M. et al. Smokers’ behaviour and the toxicity of cigarette filters to aquatic life: a multidisciplinary study. Micropl.&Nanopl. 3, 1 (2023). DOI: 10.1186/s43591-022-00050-2