May 4, 2023

Cigarette Butts

Cigarette butts

Cigarette butts are the single most common form of litter in New Zealand.  It is something that needs to change…but how do we do it?

On Sunday, 13 May, the annual Mother of All Clean-Ups takes place for 2023.  Over sixty community groups leap into action all over the city on that day to smarten up our waterways for Mother Nature the day before Mother’s Day.  If you want to be part of that action, you can click here to find out more.

Though the groups involved in the Mother of All Clean-Ups are hardly likely to categorise and count the various types of rubbish collected, you may be surprised to know that one organisation does exactly that on a regular basis in order to understand just what it is that is being littered in our country.

Keep New Zealand Beautiful is a trust set up under the Litter Act 1979.  It regularly conducts audits of the nation’s litter, its latest audit being published just last year. It will come as little surprise to anyone that plastic was the most prevalent main material type found in the 2022 National Litter Audit with a 72.4% increase since 2019 (50 plastic items vs. 29 items per 1,000 m² in 2019); that was not including the microplastics in the environment, of course.

Interestingly, given the decline in smoking, cigarette butts remained the most frequently identified material subcategory in the 2022 National Litter Audit.   Anecdotal evidence from a previous survey suggested that there was a disconnect for some smokers between their attitude towards littering and the environment, and what they did with their cigarette butts.  So what is actually in a cigarette butt?

Cigarette butts are the most abundant form of plastic waste in the world. 95% of cigarette filters are made of cellulose acetate, a synthetic plastic-like substance used commonly for photographic films. A plasticiser, triacetin (glycerol triacetate), bonds the fibres. 

While cigarette filters, or the plastic part of butts, can take up to 10 years to completely degrade, the chemicals they release can remain in the environment for many more years beyond the life of the butt itself. Toxic compounds in cigarette butts can include formaldehyde, nicotine, arsenic, lead, copper, chromium, cadmium, and a variety of polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Cigarette butts leach organic chemicals and heavy metals into the environment that are toxic to fresh and salt-water life.

In a 2018 Litter Behaviour Report by Keep New Zealand Beautiful, 45% of smokers when asked why they littered their cigarette butt gave a response about the absence of a bin and 25% indicated that littering the butt was a habit.  It just shows how easy it is to remove responsibility for the action: the absence of a bin appears to provide a rationale for littering.  

Somehow we have to rebuild the responsibility of the smoker for his/her carcinogenic, used cigarette butt. It is a responsibility that started with the action of buying the cigarette, continued with the creation of the carcinogens in the butt by the act of lighting the cigarette, and culminated in the act of littering the used butt in a way that pollutes the environment. That’s three irresponsible acts in succession, and we have not even mentioned the fire risk associated with throwing away a smouldering butt.

It’s time that we all became intolerant of the littering of cigarette butts in much the same way as we have become intolerant of cigarette smoke, and called out those casually throwing butts away.