Nov. 24, 2014 11:27 am

Everyday Sustainability: Tossing Your Cigarette Butt is Littering

In fact, cigarette filters are one of the most polluting objects on the planet.

This series, titled Sustainability for the Everyday, came from the author’s experience of becoming a parent for the first time. While tips and insights may be found in this series, the bigger goal is to explore the choices we make and why we make them when it comes to trying to live a “sustainable life.” This is all in the effort to show that yes, a person can always do more, but let’s also recognize the good that we all try to do everyday.

What does a musician in Fishtown, a scrap collector pushing a shopping cart full of metal pipes down Front Street and a woman dressed in nurse scrubs in Center City all have in common?

This may seem like the beginning of a very weird joke. But sadly enough, I witnessed each of these people throw a cigarette butt in the street after finishing a mid-day smoke. Actually, to be fair, I saw the musician throw his cigarette butt down the storm drain, which in the opinion of too many Philadelphians is a mystical trash depository that makes rubbish disappear.

It may seem like small potatoes to focus on cigarette butts with such large environmental issues facing the world. But, in fact, cigarette filters are one of the most polluting objects on the planet. According to’s Cigarette Butt Pollution Project, 99 percent of the 360 billion cigarettes sold in the US annually have cellulose acetate (plastic) filters, and 120 billion of those cigarettes are discarded into the environment.

A filter may appear to be just cotton and paper, but its chemical make-up is actually non-biodegradable. Even as sunlight and natural conditions break down most parts of a filter, there are still small chemical pieces that do not break down and can leech chemicals. Being that a majority of cigarette butts end up in rivers (thanks to our musician friend who throws his butts down the storm drain), this has detrimental effects on the flora and fauna of the sea. Volunteers across the US picked up 1,684,183 cigarette butts off of our beaches, constituting almost 33 percent of all debris found on our beaches, according to a National Institute of Health Study from 2007.

Despite the fact that cigarette smoking has dramatically declined among teens and adults since the 1960s, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), it remains a huge industry. With the advent of  “organic” cigarettes like American Spirits, new markets keep opening up. I use the example of American Spirits for two reasons. The first is that I have to admit, even at the risk of my mother possibly reading this article, I enjoy the occasional American Spirit. Is an organic cigarette any better for you? Probably not. But I do enjoy a smoke every now and then.

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However, when I’m done, I knock off the cherry and find a trash can to throw the filter away in. Although I believe all smokers should throw their butts away, the reason I bring up American Spirits is because it infuriates me to see people go to the lengths of trying to smoke a “healthier” cigarette but then throw the filter in the street.

Of course, it’s not just American Spirit smokers who are environmentally conscious and yet unaware that cigarettes are litter. I’ve seen smokers that prefer a myriad of other brands from Newports to Camel Lights, and who ostensibly claim to care about the environment, discard their filters into the street with the same disregard.

Rather than make any more quips on the ironic diversity of people I see throw their cigarette butts in the street, I’ll end with something much more simple. If you’re reading this, and you smoke cigarettes, please put out your cigarette and throw it in the trashcan. The fish down stream and the people who sweep up your mess will thank you.


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