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Three reasons not to throw cigarette butts on the ground


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The Conversation

Enrique Baquero

researcher of Biodiversity and Environment Institute and professor at School of Sciences, University of Navarra, Spain

Health, Environment and Education. And not necessarily in that order. The lives of smokers, or their quality of life, are no longer the only issue. The harmful effect of tobacco has long since reached non-smokers and the global environment. The effect of 90 million cigarettes a day in Spain alone (9 billion a year worldwide) cannot be ignored. Dumped on the ground, they are washed away by runoff water and after travelling through sewers, end up in rivers and oceans.

Every year, some 6.5 billion cigarettes are consumed worldwide, which are responsible for the deaths of more than 8 million people. Cigarette butts contain thousands of toxic substances. which are partially retained in its filter: nicotine, heavy metals (mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic), hydrocyanic acid (used in the gas chambers during the Holocaust), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and even radioactive substances such as Polonium-210. These data are sufficiently eloquent to make us wonder how it is possible that the sale of tobacco, which is the number one cause of preventable death in the world, is still allowed, in addition to the millions of economic losses to the health system in an attempt to counteract the diseases caused by their consumption.

Three types of problems can be defined in this area: the problem caused by the cigarette butt material itself, the problems caused by the toxic products that are retained in a used cigarette butt, and the fact that cigarette butts are often thrown away lit.

Cigarette butts take 12 years to degrade and can pollute up to 500 litres of water. Two thirds of cigarette butts thrown on the ground worldwide end up in the sea, and are sometimes mistaken for food by animals. Because cigarette butts contain cellulose acetate filters, a plastic subject that is not biodegradable, they remain in the environment for a long time, slowly releasing the toxic compounds they contain and contributing to the pollution of ecosystems. Currently, cigarette butts are the main source of waste worldwide subject , especially in the oceans. Finally, one cannot ignore the fact that a cigarette butt can be the cause of the ignition that starts a fire, which happens in many roadside ditches when drivers throw them out of their car windows.

Many people avoid throwing papers, bags and other objects on the ground, but after smoking a cigarette they have no problem throwing the cigarette butt on the ground. This attitude has ended up leaving 72 billion cigarette butts in the environment, and they are the second most abundant waste globally. At present, cigarette butts constitute 40% of waste in the Mediterranean. It is striking that there is no correlation between the effort involved in not throwing cigarette butts on the ground, and the issue of smokers who do so (an estimated 60% of smokers). At best, cigarette butts are thrown into rubbish bins and taken to landfill, but as we have said even this is not an acceptable solution.

And what are the reasons why they throw themselves on the ground? Lack of awareness of the problem, social normalisation and lack of remorse, all reinforced by film models, are evident. Some smokers argue that in most places there is nowhere to dispose of them. Given the importance of topic, neither is a compelling reason.

Nowadays, cigarette butts that end up in the litter mostly end up in landfill. However, due to their toxic nature, they should not be treated in this way, as their nature Chemistry requires a special management . Like most of the products put on the market, and in line with the trend towards a circular Economics , products that are likely to become waste are the responsibility of the producer (Extended Producer Responsibility). Regulated for several years by the European Union, it only applies to electrical and electronic equipment, batteries and accumulators, vehicles, packaging, tyres and mineral oils, but should include cigarette butts. 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 "there is a need to reduce the enormous environmental impact caused by the waste generated by the consumption of tobacco products with plastic-containing filters, which are uncontrollably discarded directly into the environment".

There are very simple solutions, such as the widespread use of portable ashtrays (there are already fireproof and airtight bags that prevent cigarette butts from ending up on the ground). In the city of San Francisco (California), in addition to public Education campaigns (Education Ambiental), hundreds of cylindrical containers have been installed for the selective collection of cigarette butts, which has led to a 60% reduction of this waste in conventional rubbish, and a special tax on tobacco has been imposed to recover the costs to the city of cleaning up cigarette butts. Moreover, cigarette butts, once selectively collected, can be recovered through recycling and used for other purposes, for example as thermo-acoustic insulation.

Another alternative to reduce the impact of cigarette butts is to eliminate cigarette filters, as several scientific studies, endorsed by the World Health Organisation, have shown their ineffectiveness in protecting the smoker's health, being mainly a marketing tool that creates a false sense of security in the smoker. The alternative would be the creation of more efficient filters whose biodegradable composition would reduce their tremendous impact on a global scale.

It seems clear that small, simple changes in individual and institutional behaviour would improve status in relation to cigarette butts, even without affecting the freedom of smokers too much. A simple example is that we could enjoy an improved landscape by removing cigarette butts from it. The environment will thank us for it.

This article was originally published in The Conversation. Read the original.

The Conversation