Big Butt Problems: Why and How to Deal with Toxic Cigarette Litter
by Valeria Reinoso, Climate Reality Campus Corps
Allow me to try and read your mind. Why on Earth should you find picking up and never littering cigarette butts truly important? What major risks could they pose? I am afraid the answer is very and many, respectively. Cigarette butts are non-degradable, and can have very serious consequences for the environment. As an extension of toxic cigarette content, the butts bummed onto nature can create natural hazards, poisoning animals and waterways. Luckily, there are both policy and individual action solutions available to this problem and opportunities exist for you to be a part of these, regardless of whether you smoke or not.
Cigarettes are the most littered items found on beaches in several areas in Europe. According to different estimates, they compile around 30% of litter in the UK and 38% of all collected litter in the US. Most cigarette filters are made up of cellulose acetate plastic fibres. A study led by Bonanomi demonstrated that after two years, merely 38% of a cigarette butt will be decomposed. Furthermore, as the extension of cigarettes themselves, they contain the same toxoids: arsenic, formaldehyde and lead — animal poison, a well-known human carcinogen and a substance that causes chronic brain damage, respectively. Cigarette dumping poses serious risks of animals, food chain, and water envenoming. Jill Bernstein, executive director of Keep Arizona Beautiful, a litter prevention organisation has said the issue can lead to blocked sewer gratings. Tom Waldeck, CEO of Keep Phoenix Beautiful, reported smouldering cigarette tossing is linked to dangerous fires in dry heat.
Recycling expenses are high — in deprived areas, where the blight is greatest, councils in the UK face difficult situations, when they have to sacrifice around £1.000.000 from their budget for litter clean-ups. In cities, it’s even greater — an staggering $10.700.000 is spent for this purpose in San Francisco. Strict fines have been imposed in Europe to help efforts, with the UK and Italy sanctioning an £80 and €300 fine for cigarette litterers caught in the act, respectively. The Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), a principle which assigns responsibility for the environmental management of consumer waste to manufacturers of the original product, is not followed by any of the multi-million dollar tobacco companies. As taxpayers’ money utility goes, the cellulose acetate cigarette filter could and should be banned to reduce a huge source of unsightly, non-biodegradable plastic waste that the producers refuse to take responsibility for. ‘Bottle bills’ are another option as a waste deposit-return scheme. The scheme has successfully reduced litter ranging from plastic containers and cans to unusable electronic equipment, incentivising proper waste management by industries or individuals.
But should plastic cigarette filters be used at all? In the 1950’s, cigarette filter advertisement was used when the tobacco industry could no longer argue against medical consensus on the dangers of cigarette-smoking. Health issues have led to scientific concern to replace plastic-cellulose filters with degradable ones but reminding customers (via cigarette packs) that they must not be dumped in order to avoid poisoning the environment. However, many doctors and scientists have outlined that filters were designed to soften the tobacco flavour and therefore incentivise greater puffs, correlating to worsened cigarette dependency.
If smoking is your ultimate choice, there are ways to off-set the environmental and health damages smoking conventional cigarettes cause: e-cigarettes and portable ashtrays. E-cigarettes differ from traditional cigarettes in that they do not contain carcinogens such as arsenic and vinyl chloride. They do contain other toxic products, yet they are a fraction of the amount inhaled from traditional cigarettes. Additionally, BBC reported that cigarette smoke produces 10 times more fine particulate matter air pollution than diesel car fumes. The aforementioned matter is primarily linked to health problems like asthma and lung cancer. With e-cigarettes, you would release no second-hand smoke onto passive smokers, contributing towards the air quality of non-smokers and your own. E-cigarettes also are a good first step if you are looking to quit smoking by progressively reducing the nicotine dose input. However, correct functioning of the temperature of an e-cigarette is key in achieving benefits instead of worsening damage. On the other hand, portable ashtrays provide an ultimate solutions for those with ferrous preferences for conventional cigarettes. While a cigarette disposal may be far off, the ashtray will be a pocket-sized environmentally-chic accessory that is easy to litter in and dispose of appropriately.
The best news is that whether you are a smoker or not, there is something you will personally be able to do to help achieve this environmental cause: you are formally invited to the Cigarette Pick-Up Power Walk organised by the Warwick Climate Reality Society. On Tuesday 13th of February we will be collecting cigarette butts on campus and we would love to have volunteers. Help with as little or as much as litter as you can. You will get to socialise with environmentally-minded people (like yourself!) who will march for this very noble aim during Week 10. The butts collected will be put into cylinder containers to be shipped off for Terracycle, a company that has taken the lead in recycling the ‘unrecyclable’, will be collecting the litter for free to give it a renewed purpose. And what purpose could cigarette litter serve? Abbas Mohajerani, from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, found cigarette butts could be used to produce building bricks that were as strong as conventional ones, but were lighter and had better insulation capabilities. He went on to state that his research “shows that you can create a new construction material while ridding the environment of a huge waste problem.”
Universities are generally the vanguards of environmental sustainability efforts, and whether we take part in the pollution or not it is on us to provide admirable leadership legacies for the generations to come onto our campuses. While our habits may change, there is something we all have in common: the shared environment in which we live. Together, we can make our beloved Earth a wonderful place to experience. All it takes is to become aware of how to do this, and to either create or follow opportunities for collective action in achieving a healthier, thriving planet.
Artwork by Lily Chau Yee Ki
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