Cigarette butt waste needs global attention

10 Dec 2012

From an environmental policy perspective, the tobacco industry needs to be held accountable for the entire life cycle of its products, especially the take-back and disposal of toxic tobacco waste products. In this regard, the principle of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) is essential for transferring the responsibility for the costs, community degradation and nuisances derived from tobacco waste.

Cigarette butts are the most littered item in the world, with an estimated 4.5 trillion butts dumped inexcusably into the global environment each year.

Moreover, with nearly all cigarettes containing filters made of cellulose acetate, a plastic product, discarded butts become a form of non-biodegradable toxic waste.  As such, they create an environmental blight on streets, sidewalks and other public areas.

Aquatic systems, such as shorelines and waterways, may be most vulnerable to tobacco waste toxicity, as the majority of land-based litter is ultimately deposited into those environments. Cigarette butt leachates contain measureable amounts of heavy metals, carcinogenic chemicals and pesticides that are toxic to freshwater and saltwater aquatic organisms.

Many smokers believe that filters provide some protection: that they’re safer. Rather than being a protective health device, though, filters are nothing more than a marketing tool designed to help sell “safe” cigarettes.  Publications of the US-based National Cancer Institute, among others, show no benefits to public health from filters, and tobacco industry studies have confirmed that their main purpose is to sell cigarettes.  From an environmental perspective, filters need to be banned as part of a broader effort to help prevent toxic tobacco product waste.

Looking forward, several complementary areas of focus merit increased attention within the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) and other governance structures, which are:

  • Raise Awareness: redefine discarded cigarette butts as environmentally harmful toxic waste, and develop multi-channel communications to engage and motivate the general public and decision-makers to take action;
  • Establish industry responsibility: Consistent with the EPR principle, call upon national, state, regional and provincial authorities to hold the tobacco industry and its agents responsible for disposal, take back, elimination and the cleanup costs currently born by local authorities and taxpayers;
  • Build alliances: Establish effective stakeholder networks of environmental, tobacco control and local community groups, along with governmental authorities, academia, international agencies and networks, and the private sector to work together;
  • Advocacy: Advocate policy, technical and other solutions such as:  Labelling tobacco products regarding their waste toxicity, establishing laws mandating EPR for the tobacco industry, banning disposable filters, establishing deposit/return schemes, and levying waste taxes; and
  • Strengthen the science base: Support analyses of tobacco product waste chemistry that can indicate exposure of toxic tobacco waste among humans and animals, and identify evidence-based interventions to prevent their disposal in the environment.

Article by Thomas Novotny and Clifton Curtis, Cigarette Butt Pollution Project, USA


  • The Environmental Burden of Cigarette Butts, Tobacco Control, April 2011
  • The Impact of Tobacco on the Environment, Legacy fact sheet, April 2010 (cite)
  • Tobacco and the Environment, ASH fact sheet, 2009 (

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