Cigarette Butts Come Under Fire

They are the “most littered” item in the world, critics claim.

August 06, 2019

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—The cigarette butt is a serious trash problem for regulators and tobacco companies, because tossing them on the ground is a firmly entrenched habit for many smokers, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Amid global concerns about single-use plastic, regulators are taking a tough stance on cigarette filter pollution. For decades, cigarette butts have been made from cellulose acetate, a form of plastic that takes years to break down. Studies show that butts, which often wash off sidewalks and into drains and then waterways, can be toxic to fish. It’s estimated that about 65% of cigarettes smoked in the U.S. become litter, reports Keep America Beautiful. Getting smokers to stop that practice will be a challenge.

In May, the European Union set new rules that give members two years to pass laws requiring tobacco companies to fund filter cleanup as part of a broad crackdown on single-use plastics. In the U.S., a bill aimed at banning filters has made its way through the California Senate and will be heard by the lower house next year.

In response, British American Tobacco PLC, whose cigarette brands include Kent, Newport and Camel,  and Japan Tobacco Inc. are testing biodegradable filters, while Philip Morris is assessing the potential for portable ashtrays. Previous efforts to make eco-friendly filters have failed. In 2013, BAT tested filters made from natural fibers like abaca and hemp but found toxin levels were too high. Now BAT is trying again via testing the toxicity of biodegradable filters made by San Diego startup Greenbutts LLC and examining how quickly they break down.

Critics charge that cigarette makers are moving too slowly on the issue complaining companies haven’t put labels on packs informing smokers that filters contain plastic or explaining the toxicity of waste. In response, industry officials say they haven’t invested much in eco-friendly filters in the past because existing ones effectively reduce tar levels. At the same time, studies have questioned the health benefits of filters, saying they don’t block all chemicals.

Next month, Keep America Beautiful will use billboards and other outdoor ads to tell residents of Memphis, Tennessee, and Columbus, Ohio, that “cigarette butts don’t go up in smoke” and “cigarette litter doesn’t go away on its own.” Wesley Schultz, a psychology professor at California State University San Marcos, is helping the nonprofit test whether advertising and the placement of ads in relation to cigarette urns can impact behavior. Schultz said the number and placement of trash bins matter, as does an area’s cleanliness. His 2013 research showed that for every additional ash receptacle, the littering rate for butts dropped by 9% when using a base littering rate of 65%.

As part of a joint initiative of Keep America Beautiful and Philip Morris, U.S. convenience stores can request free litter stands to collect cigarette butts. Litter stands will be delivered to retailers with all materials, hardware and guidance needed for installation. Retailers are asked to maintain litter stands by servicing them regularly. Interested U.S. convenience retailers should email with the following information:

  • Name and contact information (phone and email)
  • Store name and street address of proposed location
  • Details about where the receptacle(s) will be placed
NACS also partnered with Keep America Beautiful in 2017 to produce a free resource, “Being a Good Neighbor: A Guide to Reducing Litter, Managing Trash and Encouraging Recycling at Convenience Stores.”