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Cigarette butts leak thousands of deadly toxins into the environment

Cigarette butts, the most prevalent form of litter worldwide, have been found to release thousands of toxic chemicals and microplastic fibers harmful to aquatic life, according to a recent study by researchers at the University of Gothenburg. In light of these findings, the scientists involved in the research are urging a total ban on cigarette filters.

Cigarette butts are an all-too-familiar sight in our environment, scattered across sidewalks, bus stops, parks, and beaches. These unsightly remnants of cigarette smoking are not only an eyesore but also pose a significant threat to the environment. 

The researchers have discovered that the microfibers and chemicals leaking from cigarette filters are toxic to aquatic larvae.

“The filter is full of thousands of toxic chemicals and microplastic fibers, so it’s not just any piece of plastic that’s being discarded into the environment. It’s hazardous waste,” said Bethanie Carney Almroth, Professor of Ecotoxicology at the University of Gothenburg.

The study, published in the journal Microplastics and Nanoplastics, examined the effects of the toxins present in cigarette filters, both before and after smoking, on aquatic mosquito larvae. The researchers discovered that these toxins increased the mortality rate among mosquito larvae by 20 percent.

Prior research has already established the adverse effects of toxins found in cigarette filters on various aquatic organisms. For instance, fish can perish when exposed to concentrations of toxins equivalent to those released by just two cigarette butts in one liter of water for four days.

The evidence is clear: cigarette filters are a significant environmental hazard, posing a threat to aquatic life and ecosystems. By shedding light on the toxic nature of cigarette filters and their impact on aquatic organisms, the Gothenburg team hopes to spur necessary changes in policy and regulation. 

The researchers argue that the only way to truly protect the environment and its inhabitants from the harmful effects of cigarette filters is through a comprehensive ban.

“Cigarette filters are also a major source of the microplastics that find their way into our environment – something we know has a major negative impact on biological life. The EU has already classified cigarette filters as hazardous waste,” said Professor Carney Almroth.

Starting from the new year, tobacco producers will be responsible for footing the bill to clean up cigarette butts. However, simply providing more ashtrays may not be an adequate solution. 

The research team observed smokers’ behavior when it comes to extinguishing their cigarettes in Gothenburg, Sweden. They found that many people discard their cigarette butts on the ground even when ashtrays are available nearby.

“The clean-up costs the municipalities millions of kronor, but there will still be many cigarette butts in the environment,” said Professor Carney Almroth.

“We are now conducting a survey of plastic litter across all of Sweden with the aid of community science in what we’re calling the Plastics experiment. That way, we can work with school children and others to get better figures on where and how many cigarette butts with filters are found in the environment, in addition to other problematic plastic products.”

Professor Carney Almroth believes there is no valid justification for filters to remain a component of cigarettes. She, along with other experts, has penned an opinion piece in the journal Science of the Total Environment, arguing that cigarette butts are not only the most common litter item globally but also merely a marketing tactic with little benefit to the smoker, contrary to popular belief.

“That’s why they have to be taken off the market entirely,” said Professor Carney Almroth. “It’s not the right approach to focus on making tobacco producers pay for cleaning up the filters. The problem should be prevented in the first place, rather than cleaned up later.”

The impending shift in responsibility for cigarette butt clean-up costs to tobacco producers is a step in the right direction, but it may not be sufficient in addressing the broader environmental issues related to cigarette filters. 

Researchers like Professor Carney Almroth advocate for a more proactive and comprehensive approach, including the complete removal of filters from the market. By doing so, we can prevent further harm to the environment and more effectively tackle the problem at its source, rather than relying on clean-up efforts as a reactive measure.

More about cigarettes and their environmental impact

Cigarettes have a far-reaching impact on the global environment, affecting not only human health but also air, water, and soil quality, as well as wildlife. The various stages of cigarette production, consumption, and disposal contribute to environmental degradation in several ways:

Deforestation and habitat destruction

Tobacco cultivation requires vast amounts of land, which often leads to deforestation and habitat destruction. As forests are cleared for tobacco farming, the loss of tree cover contributes to increased greenhouse gas emissions and disrupts local ecosystems.

Pesticide and fertilizer use

Tobacco farming relies heavily on the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. These chemicals can leach into the soil, contaminating groundwater and local water sources, and negatively affect both human health and aquatic life.

Air pollution

Cigarette smoke contains thousands of chemicals, many of which are harmful pollutants. When a cigarette is smoked, these pollutants are released into the atmosphere, contributing to air pollution and exacerbating respiratory issues for those exposed to secondhand smoke.

Cigarette butts and litter

Cigarette filters, or butts, are the most common form of litter worldwide. These filters, which contain toxic chemicals and microplastics, often end up in waterways and oceans, posing a significant threat to aquatic life. Animals may mistake cigarette butts for food, which can lead to ingestion of harmful chemicals and cause injury or death.

Greenhouse gas emissions

The entire lifecycle of cigarettes, from tobacco cultivation to manufacturing and transportation, generates greenhouse gas emissions. These emissions contribute to climate change, which has far-reaching consequences for ecosystems and human health globally.

Resource consumption

The production of cigarettes requires substantial amounts of water, energy, and other resources. This consumption contributes to the depletion of natural resources and places additional strain on the environment.

In conclusion, the environmental impact of cigarettes is multifaceted, touching upon various aspects of the global environment. From deforestation and pollution to waste generation and resource consumption, cigarettes pose a significant challenge to environmental sustainability. 

Addressing these issues requires a comprehensive approach, including stricter regulations on tobacco production, public awareness campaigns, and support for alternative livelihoods for tobacco farmers.


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