From: Editor, ENN
Published April 18, 2013 04:29 PM

Cigarette Butts Litter Waterways, Create Toxic Aquatic Ecosystems

What would you say is the most littered item on US roadways? I think of two things: gum and cigarette butts. But let's focus on cigarettes for now.

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Cigarette filters are made from cellulose acetate, a plastic which is technically biodegradable. However, cigarette butts only degrade under conditions described by researchers as "severe biological circumstances," such as when filters end up in sewage. Even under optimal conditions, it can take at least 9 months for a butt to degrade.

And even though these filters are only an inch long, with over 360 billion cigarettes being consumed in the United States (according to a 2007 estimate), cigarette remnants are bound to end up in our natural environments and public spaces.

A new survey conducted by Legacy, an organization committed to public education of tobacco products, evaluates Americans' attitudes on the issue, their own littering behaviors, and whether survey respondents consider cigarette butts to be an environmental concern.

Some of the key findings include:

     -  More than 88 percent of Americans surveyed think that cigarette butts are an environmental concern, however, more than 44 percent of those polled who had ever smoked admit to having dropped a cigarette on the ground and nearly 32 percent have dropped a cigarette out of a car window.

     -  Over the prior 30 days, Americans surveyed reported seeing cigarette butts on sidewalks (80.1 percent), in parks (32.1 percent), on playgrounds (16.6 percent) and on beaches (15.7 percent).

     -  While more than 93 percent of those surveyed agree that dropping a cigarette butt on the ground is a form of littering, many smokers still litter them.

Cigarette butts are in fact toxic waste. Not only are these small stubs an eyesore, but they can also leach toxic chemicals and carcinogens into the environment, poisoning wildlife and contaminating waterways. Environmental cleanup reports also find that cigarette butts are the No. 1 littered item found on beaches and waterways worldwide.

Data from the Ocean Conservancy shows that in 2010, over one million cigarettes or cigarette filters were removed from American beaches and inland waterways as part of the annual International Coastal Cleanup (ICC). This represents about 31% of the total debris items collected and by far the most prevalent item found.

As studies start to show how the toxicity of cigarette butts in aquatic ecosystems affect wildlife, more actions will need to be taken by municipalities and government organizations in order to prevent cigarette littering in their parks and beaches.

For more information, visit Legacy.

Cigarettes on beach image via Shutterstock.

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