Cigarette butts – time for producer responsibility?

Is it time the tobacco industry takes responsibility tobacco product waste?

Cigarette butts are the most commonly discarded waste product in the world, and almost 6.3 trillion cigarettes were consumed globally in 2012. Observational studies and self-reports by smokers suggest that from one to two-thirds of the butts from smoked cigarettes are tossed by smokers into the surrounding environment, buried in landfills, or dumped into storm drains.

In 2015, 409,417 cigarette butts were picked up in The Great Canadian Shoreline Clean-up, cigarette butts topped the list of items in the litter collected. According to the Litter Reduction Taskforce Cure Litter  Canadians drop 8,000 tonnes of cigarette butts each year — the majority within a mere 10 feet of an ashtray.

Keep America Beautiful reports that Americans are smoking fewer cigarettes than ever before, yet cigarette butts continue to be the most commonly littered item in the United States and around the world today. They specify two reasons for this statistic — lack of awareness on the smoker’s part, and the lack of availability of waste receptacles at “transition” locations, such as outside stores and other buildings, and at public transportation pickup spots.Cigarettes contain 7000 chemicals, and many of them, such as ethyl phenol, heavy metals and nicotine, are themselves toxic. At least 50 are known human carcinogens; others have been found to be toxic to marine and freshwater organisms, and toxic to humans and animals. Chemicals are added to cigarette paper to control the burn rate, and calcium carbonate is added as a whitener, in part to create an appealing ash as the cigarette burns. Studies conducted by Clean Virginia Waterways have shown that just one cigarette butt in approximately two gallons of water is lethal to water fleas, a tiny crustacean found in fresh water and saltwater. And, tiny bits of tobacco that are invariably left attached cigarette filters carry more toxins than the filters do themselves.The core of the cigarette butt is made up the part that looks like white cotton, is actually a form of plastic called cellulose acetate. By itself, cellulose acetate is very slow to degrade in our environment. Cellulose acetate fibers in a cigarette filter are thinner than sewing thread and a single filter contains more than 12,000 of acetate fibers. Depending on the conditions of the area the cigarette butt is discarded in, it can take 18 months to 10 years for a cigarette filter to decompose.

Cigarettes are both a health hazard and an environmental hazard. Nicotine is an addictive substance. There are 1.1 billion smokers in the world today, and if current trends continue, that number is expected to increase to 1.6 billion by the year 2025. Cigarettes are a problem that cannot be ignored.

Governments have started to address the health impacts of smoking by banning smoking in public places and some provinces have attempted to sue large tobacco companies for health costs associated to tobacco use. Health warnings are printed on packages.

Health organizations are promoting “reduce and refuse” behavioural change for use of these hazardous products. For those addicted to nicotine there are many smoking cessation programs offered by government agencies and private facilities.

There can be no debate that the impacts tobacco is costing big dollars.

Kelley Lee, who holds a Canada Research Chair in global health, co-authored a new study that suggest that we need to go upstream to the source of the problem – the tobacco industry. The paper, published recently in the peer-reviewed journal Tobacco Control, sets out a regulatory scheme as model legislation for adoption by cities, provinces or countries. It was designed in collaboration with the Washington, D.C.-based Cigarette Butt Pollution Project. The study proposes the tobacco industry take on the collection, transport, processing and safe disposal of butts, based on the principle of Extended Producer Responsibility, which would incorporate the environmental cost of butts into the price of cigarettes. The paper suggests companies take responsibility in various ways including taking on the cost of collecting, recycling or disposing butts, initiating cleanup programs and informing consumers about the environmental risks of tossing butts.

cigarette-butt-63338_640Other industries that produce hazardous consumer goods are already legally responsible in a patchwork of legislation across North America for dealing with paints, pesticide containers, fluorescent light bulbs and unused drugs. It is time for the tobacco industry takes responsibility.

Extended Producer Responsibility legislation for tobacco products in Canada would help in healing the toxic legacy of tobacco.