Artwork created by Marmeu – Associação de Defesa do Ambiente

The effects of flicking a cigarette

By Tooka Pourgive

23 May 2019

The topic of ocean pollution has largely revolved around plastics, but there are other contaminants that go unnoticed.

Cigarette filters, also known as cigarette butts, are the highest human pollutant in our oceans. This isn’t only because of beach goers who litter the sand, but also people who litter the streets. Whether it is rain that carries it through the city canals, or the rivers, most of littered trash finds its way back to the ocean.

There are roughly 4.5 trillion cigarette butts littered each year.

Cigarette filters are NON-biodegradable and UV resistant, and are highly toxic to marine life. Filters are made from cellulose acetate which is turned into a synthetic fibre. Another name for cellulose acetate is Rayon, often used for achieving the plasticising effect in plastics and in photography films.

Although the filter absorbs all the toxins, it does not prevent them from entering the smoker’s lungs. Once in the water, the filter begins to dissolve and release all of the toxins found in the tobacco such as ammonia, nicotine, benzene, acetaldehyde, and formaldehyde amongst many other substances.

Moreover, the filters float and are eaten by marine life that assume it to be food. An estimated 70% of seabirds and 30% of sea turtles have pieces of cigarette filters in them.

Cigarette smoke produces high amounts of greenhouse gases; on average, 5000 metric tonnes of formaldehyde, and 30,000 metric tonnes of nicotine, Carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxides are released into the atmosphere annually.

Regardless of how many initiatives have been taken by both governments and NGOs to clean-up the beaches, and to reduce littering, the bottom line is that smokers flick their cigarettes. There is really one practical solution, and that is a total ban on cigarette filters globally.