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The impact of tobacco on the environment


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The Conversation

Jesús Miguel Santamaría

Full Professor of Chemistry Analytical and director of Biodiversity and Environment Institute of the University of Navarra

Every year, more than 6 billion cigarettes are consumed worldwide, which are responsible for the deaths of some 8 million people in the same period, a figure that is more than double the number of deaths produced to date by COVID-19. In addition to the human losses, it is also necessary to consider the health expense derived from smoking, which is barely compensated by the taxes collected from the sale of this product.

These data are eloquent enough to make us wonder how it is possible that tobacco is still allowed to be sold, a product that contains more than 75 carcinogenic compounds and more than 200 toxic compounds, constituting the leading cause of preventable death in the world.

But the problem does not end here. In addition to its impact on health and Economics, tobacco is also manager of very serious environmental problems, especially those produced by cigarette butts, which constitute what is known as "fourth-hand tobacco". It has been estimated that 75% of cigarette butts are thrown on the ground, carried by the wind and rain and transported through sewers to rivers and seas, and are currently the main waste subject worldwide.

The danger of cigarette butts lies in their cellulose acetate filter, a non-biodegradable plastic polymer that can remain in the environment for a long time (up to 10 years), slowly releasing toxic compounds that have been retained by the filter during smoking, such as nicotine, heavy metals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, phenols and insecticides. The ingestion of cigarette butts by many animals, the release of toxic compounds stored in the filter and the micro- and nanoplastics that are released, cause serious impacts on biodiversity, ecosystems and health, many of which have not yet been sufficiently characterized.

This global problem requires the development of appropriate and safe laws or regulations for the management of this subject waste, recognized in some countries as toxic and hazardous waste. Currently, cigarette butts are concentrated in the residual fraction, which in most cities is deposited in landfills. However, due to their composition Chemistry and their toxic nature, they require a special management .

The vast majority of products that are put on the market sooner or later become waste, which must be properly treated to reuse their materials and prevent them from polluting, following the guidelines set by the trend of the Economics circular . These products that are likely to become waste are also the responsibility of the producer who manufactured them, which is called "Extended Producer Responsibility", which has been regulated for several years by the European Union and which only applies to electrical and electronic equipment, batteries and accumulators, vehicles, packaging, tires and mineral oils.

Directive (EU) 2019/904 of the European Parliament and of the committee, of 5 June 2019, on reducing the impact of certain plastic products on the environment states that "the enormous environmental impact caused by the waste generated by the consumption of tobacco products with filters containing plastic, which are uncontrollably disposed of directly into the environment, needs to be reduced."

Therefore, Extended Producer Responsibility can be a good model to establish new laws on the management of cigarette waste, so that the tobacco industry is involved in the very serious environmental problem that it itself produces, covering for example the costs of cleaning up cigarette butts in the world and becoming position of the costs of establishing a specific infrastructure for the collection of waste following the consumption of tobacco products, such as appropriate containers for cigarette butts in places where they are usually dumped.

To these measures should be added the implementation of public campaigns Education aimed at reducing cigarette butt waste, making smokers aware of the drastic effects that this waste has on the environment.

On the other hand, municipalities should implement an appropriate strategy for the management of cigarette butts, which, as mentioned above, are usually deposited in the residual fraction. In this sense, more and more companies are specializing in the recycling of cigarette butts, whose innovative technologies would help to alleviate the environmental problems associated with this waste subject .

Several scientific studies, endorsed by the World Health Organization, have demonstrated the ineffectiveness of cellulose acetate filters in protecting smokers' health. Therefore, another alternative to reduce the impact of cigarette butts is to eliminate these filters and create other more efficient and biodegradable ones, which would reduce the tremendous impact caused on a global scale.

At final, it seems evident that the implementation of many of these initiatives and the behavioral changes generated in society through a science-based environmental Education constitute tremendously efficient tools to solve a problem as important as the pollution generated by cigarette butts, thus helping to safeguard the health of our planet.