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  Cigarette Butts  






U.S. LitterButt's Pledge

I pledge allegiance, as I trash, the United States of America, and to the cigarette butt carpet under which it's hidden, one more, what can it hurt, another non-biodegradable acetate filter for all.
John R. Polito - July 4, 2002






Mother Earth is Not an Ashtray

Is mother earth being rained upon by two billion cigarette butts each day?  Although accurate butt facts are rare, that's an average of less than two cigarette butts daily from each of earth's 1.2 billion smokers, just 13% of the estimated 15 billion filtered cigarettes being smoked each day. 

What we do know is that worldwide 5.6 trillion filtered cigarettes are smoked annually, with an estimated 1.7 billion pounds of cigarette butt litter. Here in the U.S., more than 1.35 trillion cigarettes were manufactured in 2007, of which 360 billion were smoked here. Look closely at the ground at any intersection.  They're everywhere!

Are cigarette butts litter?  Absolutely!  But unlike paper products they're not biodegradable.  Nearly all cigarette filters are composed of a bundle of 12,000 plastic-like cellulose acetate fibers. Cellulose acetate is photodegradable but not bio-degradable. It can take years, in some cases up to fifteen, for ultraviolet light to cause fibers to decay into a plastic powder that can't be seen.  As they do their deadly cargo is released.

The nicotine trapped inside 200 used filters may be sufficient to kill a 160 pound adult human - 30 to 60 milligrams.  Imagine a month without rain followed by a brief thunderstorm that washes 500,000 nicotine laden canoes - enough to kill 2,500 humans - into area creeks and streams.  Aquatic life at the bottom of the food chain can pay a deadly price. But so can fish who mistake butts for food or birds who use them for nesting material.  Nicotine isn't the only villain as trapped tars and toxic gases leach into waterways too.

Tar refers to the more than three thousand five hundred chemical particles and five hundred gases generated by each burning cigarette that include arsenic, vinyl chloride, acetone, mercury and lead.  Modern filters trap roughly half the tar while capturing one-third of a cigarette's formaldehyde and two-thirds of its hydrogen cyanide.  Pick up a few dozen butts and take a big whiff. Smell the scent of bitter almonds?  That's hydrogen cyanide.

It's sad that those chemically dependent upon regular nicotine feedings daily punish the environment with their not so empty empties. But it isn't all their fault.  Although roughly 80% of all littered items along the three miles of highway roadside that I maintain are cigarette butts or their packaging, law enforcement officers have historically ignored those flicking lit butts.  But why?

Imagine being a police officer and chemically dependent upon nicotine yourself, working with scores of smoking officers who daily violate criminal litter laws, or living with nicotine dependent family members who litter butts themselves.  Who would you cite or arrest first?

If a non-smoker, I challenge you to try and understand the root cause of more than 1 billion cigarette butts being hurled to the ground daily. Understanding nicotine addiction and the recovery process positions you to reach out to smokers in ways you never imagined possible. Assisting just one pack-a-day smoker in arresting their chemical dependency, or preventing just one child or teen from becoming another pack-a-day smoker, means 7,300 fewer cigarette butts per year. Is it easier to pick-up 7,300 butts or not have them there to begin with?

Today, the world turns its collective head while mother earth serves as one big ashtray for hundreds of billions of littered butts each year.  What message does such contempt for the land and laws send to our children?  We need to either enforce our litter laws or repeal them.

It takes only seconds to field strip and pocket a used filter.  I challenge all current and former smokers to help clean up our mess.  Neither society nor the environment deserve to live with our old butts for years to come. If you do adopt a small section of roadway, be sure to wear a glove and try not to breathe the fumes rising from your bucket or bag.  Let's each become just a little litter bitter.  Together we can make a difference!








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Last updated on February 15, 2014 by John R. Polito