Cigarette Butts: Toxic Litter
Updated: Apr 21
I take a sip of my smooth, black coffee as I stare at the dark road ahead of me, still waking up as I drive through the dark with sunrise still hours away. As I drive, I scan the ditches for a glint of light reflecting off a deer’s eye and look for dark spots on the road signalling a crossing porcupine or striped skunk. As another motorist zips past me in the passing lane, I can see what looks like a small, glowing coal fly out the window of the grey sedan and bounce off the asphalt with a tiny explosion of orange embers. It’s a cigarette butt.
As I continue down the paved roadway, I start to wonder what will become of the cigarette butt. Maybe, when morning arrives, a bird will pick it up and eat it, thinking it’s food. Maybe it will bring it to its nest to feed its young. Unfortunately, this exact scenario happens much too often.
A 2011 research study found that although there is not much information on the consumption of cigarettes by wildlife, domestic animals commonly ingest cigarette butts. This led them to infer that it is quite possible that wildlife do the same. This same study found that ingestion of cigarettes in pets resulted in a variety of complications even including death.¹
A study conducted in Mexico City in 2013 on the nests of house sparrows and house finches found that these urban birds were incorporating cigarette butts into their nests at an extraordinary level. In fact, 89.29% of house sparrow nests and 86.21% of house finch nests contained cellulose from smoked cigarette butts.² Interestingly the nicotine from the cigarettes was found to keep ectoparasites out of the nests; however, the negative consequences of the toxins being in contact with the birds would almost certainly counteract the benefits.
There is plenty of evidence that points to these toxic pieces of litter being used or consumed by wildlife and there is no doubt these behaviours can be extremely harmful.
Then I start thinking about other ends to the story. Maybe nothing will have a chance to pick it up, maybe the dry, brown grass it landed in will ignite, creating a small grass fire that rapidly spreads to the nearby forest. The dry spring wouldn’t do any favours as the trees go up in bright orange flames and a forest fire begins.
Cigarettes cause wildfires. A 2017 review found that in the United States, human causes were the reason for the vast majority of wildfires in the country.³ Smoking is a large part of this with, according to a U.S. federal government report, an average of 22,387 acres burned on average each year due to smoking from the years 2000 – 2008.⁴ This huge number is even a 90% drop from the number of fires in the 1970s most likely due to the drop in the number of people smoking. This is a massive amount of anthropogenic wildfire from just cigarettes.
With the rise in the number of wildfires due to many factors, including climate change, One of the easiest ways for humans to make a difference is to stop carelessly discarding cigarettes.
Continuing to think, I wonder if maybe neither one of those things will happen. Maybe the toxic butt will stay where it is, releasing toxins into the surrounding ecosystem. Maybe it will decompose and become part of the soil.
This is often the case as cigarette butts are the most common piece of litter found in beach cleanups and litter surveys and the filters on cigarettes aren’t biodegradable so they will just stay in the environment.⁵ The parts of the cigarette that do decompose are terrible for the ecosystems they end up in. A 2011 study that took place over 34 days found that cigarettes leached contaminants into the environment that risked acute harm to local organisms⁶ and the nicotine and ethyl phenol that leach into the environment were found, in a 2002 study, to be acutely toxic to freshwater micro-organisms.⁷ Furthermore, a Japanese study found that cigarette butts littered on roadsides released arsenic, nicotine, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and heavy metals into the environment.⁸
Cigarette butts have been found to be the most common form of litter in the world with approximately 5.6 trillion cigarettes smoked worldwide every year.⁹ This toxic litter that gets thrown into the ecosystem so indifferently and nonchalant, is a serious problem. Cigarette butts need to be disposed of properly and not introduced into our already strained natural areas.
1. Novotny, T. E., Hardin, S. N., Hovda, L. R., Novotny, D. J., McLean, M. K., & Khan, S. (2011). Tobacco and cigarette butt consumption in humans and animals. Tobacco Control, 20(Suppl 1), i17-i20.
2. Suárez-Rodríguez, M., López-Rull, I., & Macias Garcia, C. (2013). Incorporation of cigarette butts into nests reduces nest ectoparasite load in urban birds: new ingredients for an old recipe?. Biology Letters, 9(1), 20120931.
3. Balch, J. K., Bradley, B. A., Abatzoglou, J. T., Nagy, R. C., Fusco, E. J., & Mahood, A. L. (2017). Human-started wildfires expand the fire niche across the United States. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(11), 2946-2951.
4. Prestemon, J. P., Hawbaker, T. J., Bowden, M., Carpenter, J., Brooks, M. T., Abt, K. L., ... & Scranton, S. (2013). Wildfire ignitions: a review of the science and recommendations for empirical modeling. Gen. Tech. Rep. SRS-GTR-171. Asheville, NC: USDA-Forest Service, Southern Research Station. 20 p., 171, 1-20.
5. Smith, E. A., & Novotny, T. E. (2011). Whose butt is it? Tobacco industry research about smokers and cigarette butt waste. Tobacco Control, 20(Suppl 1), i2-i9.
6. Moerman, J. W., & Potts, G. E. (2011). Analysis of metals leached from smoked cigarette litter. Tobacco Control, 20(Suppl 1), i30-i35.
7. Warne, M., Patra, R. W., Cole, B., & Lanau, B. (2002). Toxicity and a Hazard Assessment of Cigarette Butts to Aquatic Organisms [abstract]. Interact 2002-Programme and Abstract Book.
8. Moriwaki, H., Kitajima, S., & Katahira, K. (2009). Waste on the roadside,‘poi-sute’waste: its distribution and elution potential of pollutants into environment. Waste management, 29(3), 1192-1197.
9. Novotny, T., Lum, K., Smith, E., Wang, V., & Barnes, R. (2009). Cigarettes butts and the case for an environmental policy on hazardous cigarette waste. International journal of environmental research and public health, 6(5), 1691-1705.