By Oliver Berger –

These little butts are the #1 littered item in the world.
These little butts are the #1 littered item in the world. Photo: Morgan Day

This is going to be a tough article to write. There is a small battle I have been struggling with for some time. For those of you who don’t know, I am one of those casual smokers, and have been for over a decade. It is a tough thing to admit, however, a reality of having a partially addictive personality, I suppose. There are so many reasons not to smoke: obvious health issues, which I seem to completely ignore and somehow figure they will not happen to me, and even knowing friends who have suffered to the end of their lives, partially because of unhealthy lifestyle choices like smoking. The inhalation of ingredients like cyanide, arsenic, tar, ammonia, and nicotine should easily make a person who enjoys the intake of otherwise healthy ingredients cringe. The smell… oh the smell, especially if you’re packing your butts around looking for the next garbage can. None of this seems to be stimulating enough for me to kick my habit.

So, I have decided to approach this from a (hopefully) more viable angle, by using a subject that has more leverage on my thought process. One of those subjects would most definitely be waste management and the protection of our environment, which I am sure you readers have most likely picked up on by now. I began paying more attention to the environmental side effects that cigarette smokers cause on our planet.

One cannot help but notice the massive amount of butts on the ground all over the place, even in some of the purest of outdoor areas. Cigarette butts are the #1 most littered item in the world.

It is the most commonly found item on the ground in our cities, parks, roadways, waterways, oceans, and natural surroundings. After searching many sources, I am going to say approximately five trillion butts are thrown into our worldwide backyard every year. Contrary to what some people believe, these butts are not compostable. Cigarette filters are made from cellulose acetate, a plastic product that can break down into smaller pieces of itself, however, will never biodegrade or disappear. Sorry, Earth.

The Ocean Conservancy conducts the International Coastal Cleanup® annually, where volunteers sift through millions of pieces of ocean debris, counting and documenting what they find item-by-item, location-by-location. The number one item they find every year is cigarette butts – by a long shot – followed by food wrappers and containers, plastic bottles, and plastic bags.

Many butts end up in the trash. Still, what is the direct effect these small pieces of toxic litter have on the ground or the water? Many chemicals are concentrated in the butt, as well as in the remaining tobacco. Research shows these chemicals are actually toxic. Basically, smokers are nonchalantly tossing toxic waste into the environment everyday.

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency’s 1996 paper, “Ecological Effects Test Guidelines: Aquatic invertebrate acute toxicity test for freshwater daphnids,” water fleas were introduced to petri dishes filled with dilution water and the test solution. In aquatic ecosystems, water fleas occupy a critical position as they transfer energy and organic matter from primary producers (algae) to higher consumers such as fishes. Experiments showed the chemicals in cigarette butts are acutely toxic to water fleas (meaning at least 50 percent of the daphnids population died) at concentrations higher than 0.125 cigarette butts per liter of water. This translates to one cigarette butt per eight liters, or approximately one butt per two gallons of water. The leachate from the remnant tobacco portion of a cigarette butt is deadlier at smaller concentrations than are the chemicals that leach out of the filter portion of a butt”

To read more from this and other studies about cigarette butt waste, please visit

Children and animals also mistakenly ingest these yummy butts causing similar internal toxic adversities, similar to those in the water flea test. Forest fires are started every year because of butts, and people lose homes and lives. I don’t like the sound of any of those things.

Now Terracycle Canada has implemented a program that tackles these intensely littered items by recycling them. They accept the butts, filters, papers, and even the packaging. The paper and tobacco are composted, the ash is used in fertilizers, and the plastics (filters) are recycled into industrial products like plastic pallets or park benches. Terracycle’s geographical availability for recycling butts is limited; however, they have managed to divert 360,000 butts per year so far in a pilot project happening in the City of Vancouver. It’s a start.

Unfortunately, cigarette butt waste seems to be the last socially acceptable form of littering in our increasingly environmentally-conscious world. It’s time to change that. For us in the Cariboo, the best thing we can do is make sure all our butts end up in the trash, or better yet, just do not bother lighting up at all. Did I just convince myself there? Happy 2016.

Oliver Berger has a 34-year degree in life, starting out in the Spokin Lake area, spending adolescence in Williams Lake, and then venturing throughout the world on a quest of always learning new things. His priorities include dedication to and education about waste management.



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