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Nothing "Butt" the Facts

The most littered item worldwide are cigarette butts.  They get thrown out of car windows, discarded in the sand on the beach and are seen everywhere from parking lots to playgrounds.  Not only are cigarettes bad for your health, but they are bad for the environment. 

According to Ocean Conservancy, 4.5 trillion cigarette butts are littered in our parks, sidewalks and public places yearly.  That number is staggering until you learn that cigarette butts are the most littered item in the United States.

Most cigarette filters are not biodegradable as many people presume. 95 percent of filters are made of plastic cellulose acetate and take approximately 12-25 years to decompose. Cigarette filters are designed to absorb some of the tar and chemicals found in cigarettes such as cadmium, lead and arsenic, however once the filter enters the marine environment these toxic chemicals are leached out into the water.

Ingestion by wildlife can lead to starvation or malnutrition if the butts block the intestinal tract and prevent digestion, or accumulate in the digestive tract, making the animal feel full and lessening its desire to feed.  Because cigarette ends can be mistaken for food animals will ingest them. They have been found in the guts of whales, dolphins, sea birds and turtles.

Here are some of the chemicals that discarded cigarette butts leach into our environment and what these chemicals are used in: Formaldehyde (embalming fluid), Ammonia (toilet cleaning products), Benzene (petrol additive) and don't forget Nicotine which is commonly found in insecticides. Only 10 percent of all butts are properly disposed of in ash receptacles. There are over 176,000,000 pounds of discarded cigarette butts in the United States each year. 

According to the Ocean Conservancy, cigarette butt litter accounts for one in every five items collected during cleanups, making it the most prevalent form of litter on earth.

More Facts About Tobacco and the Environment

A cigarette-manufacturing machine uses four miles of paper per hour to roll and package cigarettes.

The tobacco industry burns as much as one acre of forest for every acre of tobacco cured, using 12% of all the timber felled in the world. On average, a tree is cut down for every 300 cigarettes (about a two-week supply for a pack-a-day smoker). In Brazil, the country’s 100,000 tobacco farmers need the wood of 60 million trees a year.

Tobacco cultivation involves a great deal of pesticides, which must be used in the early stages of tobacco growth. Fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides poison farm workers, seep into the soil and pollute waterways and ecological systems, and poison livestock and food crops. In the U.S., all cigarette butts thrown away in 1993 weighed as much as 30,800 large elephants.

Some of the costs are associated with the manpower and resources to pick up litter. Who picks up litter? Employees of parks, schools, hotels, restaurants, and local governments have to pick up litter, as well as volunteers who care about the environment. Cigarettes are often littered within 10 feet of a permanent ashtray. Now that most buildings do not allow smoking inside, the problem of discarded butts on sidewalks, entryways and in courtyards is increasing.

Other costs are incurred when a discarded cigarette butt starts a fire that destroys a forest, a field, or people's homes. Fires caused by cigarette butts claim the lives of about 1,000 people and injure about 3,000 people each year. The costs of "lost revenue" are incurred when tourists will not spend their vacation dollars to visit a beach or park that is full of litter and trash.

Environmental Cost of Cigarettes

No butts about it. The environmental costs of tobacco products are more than just smoke.  Cigarettes contain over 165 chemicals - Some of the chemicals smokers inhale:

Benzo[a]pyrene: Found in coal tar and cigarette smoke and it is one of the most potent cancer causing chemical in the world.

Arsenic: A deadly poison that causes diarrhea, cramps, anemia, paralysis and malignant skin tumors. It is used in pesticides.

Acetone: It's one of the active ingredients in nail polish remover.

Lead: Poisoning stunts growth, causes vomiting, and causes brain damage.

Formaldehyde: Causes cancer, can damage lungs, skin, and digestive systems. Embalmers use it to preserve dead bodies.

Toluene: Highly toxic, commonly use as an ingredient in paint thinner.

Butane: Highly flammable butane is one of the key components in gasoline.

Cadmium: Causes damage to the liver, kidneys and brain, and stays in the body for years.

Ammonia: Causes individuals to absorb more nicotine, keeping them hooked on smoking.

Benzene: Found in pesticides and gasoline.

Wind and rain often carry cigarette butts into waterways, where the toxic chemicals in the cigarette filters leak out, threatening the quality of the water and the creatures that live in it.


Some companies like Terracycle are recycling discarded cigarette butts. Recycling on any level is great but to be able to do this the worlds most littered item would hopefully change the smoking culture and hopefully people would dispose of their butts in a responsible manner.  We hope to be a part of this new wave of recycling soon and to put this needless trash to some use.

The Following is a List of How Cigarette Butts are Recycled

Numerous insulation products

Noise reduction products / additives


Molded light-weight products that are also be painted

Strengthening / reinforcement additives

Oxidation protection coatings

Water-resistant applications

Potential attributes for light-weight armor in military applications


Did you know that you can get certain illnesses just from touching a littered cigarette butt?  Unfortunately you can.  Toxic chemicals can leach from cigarette butts and cigarette butts can contain saliva, so meningitis, herpes or even mono can be passed from one person to another.  In Zanesville, Ohio, ashtrays were removed from outside the Muskingum County Health Departments Infectious Disease Unit after someone contracted Tuberculosis from a cigarette butt they picked out of the ashtray.  How long do diseases typically live once they are away from the body?  It varies according to many factors, mostly temperature, moisture and/or humidity.  Under the right circumstances (72 degrees with 98% humidity) a disease could remain viable on a cigarette butt for up to 96 hours.