The Military Times has ventured into the field of environmental issues on a number of occasions; we have run a piece on plastics and water shortages, and our social media sites have carried photos of troops being drafted in to help fight heath-fires caused by the hot weather associated with climate change. However, it has been drawn to our attention that there is a really insidious problem out there on our streets in the form of cigarette-stubs or butts (whether tobacco-stubs or filters), which are perhaps far more worrying and dangerous than any other single source of domestic pollution.
Cigarette butts typically form the largest single type of litter picked up by public authorities, whether from the streets, watercourses or beaches. And yet, one survey indicated that 77 percent of people in the USA do not think of cigarette butts as litter. Indeed, studies show that, in the western world, about one in three cigarette butts are simply thrown away – or “flicked” – onto the ground, as opposed to disposed of in some acceptable manner. The figure is much higher in under-developed countries.
The link between smoking and littering is strong. The less developed a country’s overall infrastructure and social services, the more likely are its people to smoke. In some less-developed countries, well over 66% of men smoke, for example. The lack of infrastructure also means far more butts are “flicked” and end up in water supplies and the ocean if they have not already been ingested by birds, animals and also children.
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(In so-called more “advanced” societies, the effects of modern smoking legislation are still being assessed. The British ban on indoor public-smoking resulted in people going outside to have a puff and then chucking the fag-ends before going back inside. The charity Keep Britain Tidy estimates that there has been a 43% increase in cigarette littering as a result of the ban and resulting discarding of cigarette butts in streets and flower-beds.)
To give an idea of how many cigarettes and butts are involved, about 15 billion are sold each day – that is, about 10 million every minute! There are about 300 million smokers in China alone, consuming 1.7 trillion cigarettes a year, or about 3 million every minute. In the US, about 358 billion cigarettes are smoked every year. The world cigarette consumption is reckoned to be well over 5 trillion per year. The numbers are simply staggering, so to be absolutely clear, 5 trillion is five thousand billion, or 5,000,000,000,000.
Assuming half of all cigarette butts are “flicked”, we are talking about 2.75 to 3 trillion butts going into the ecosystem each year. Given the average weight of a filter, that equates to about 500,000,000 kilograms, or 500 thousand tonnes, of filters laced with many water-soluble chemicals, entering the eco-system each year. Some estimates put it as high as 750,000 tonnes annually.
Does this matter?
Well, we might be aware of the problems that actual smoking per-se causes (although in the UK a recent survey showed that 90% of women smokers did not know about the link between cervical cancer and smoking), and the World Health Organisation reckons about 6 million people die each year of smoking-related problems. However, the butts that are thrown away contain high concentrations of some of the most toxic and dangerous chemicals known to man and beast. It is these that are now killing humans, animals, fishes, and birds etc. in huge numbers worldwide.
It is worth pointing out that the soft, white, fibrous substance in a filter is not “cotton” or some other bio-degradable waste. Many years of trying to develop a natural, bio-degradable filter have not produced something that smokers will accept. The filter is therefore made of a very fine, fibrous plastic called cellulose acetate which, depending upon conditions, can take up to ten years to decompose in the ground. They also collect the carcinogens, nicotine, and toxins found in all tobacco products, chemicals that are concentrated in the butts regardless of the filter material, and it is these that are the major part of the problem.
(Filters were originally designed to keep loose tobacco out of the mouth. They were never intended to reduce the health risks of smoking. Some argue that they, therefore, make the problem worse as they tend to reduce the awareness of the danger to health amongst smokers and also encourage children to start smoking. Studies indicate cancer risks have actually increased over the 50 years they have been used.)
More than 4,500 chemicals are found in cigarettes. Many of these can enter the environment from the tobacco remnants of a cigarette butt or filter. These include toxins such as ethyl phenol, nicotine, hydrogen cyanide, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, ammonia, acetaldehyde, formaldehyde, benzene, phenol, argon, pyridines and acetone, and polonium-210. More than 50 of these chemicals are known to be carcinogenic to humans. (By mass, polonium-210 is one of the deadliest toxins, around 250 billion times more toxic than hydrogen cyanide. It was the poison used to kill the former Russian spy, Alexander Litvinenko, in London in 2006. He died of radiation sickness.) The toxins also include pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, and rodenticides, all of which might be sprayed onto the tobacco crop and which find their way into the cigarette and then the filter.
Once a butt lands in a drain, ditch or the sea, it starts to leach out the chemicals to form a toxic mix called a “leachate”. This cocktail is so lethal that one cigarette butt soaked in a litre of water for 96 hours leaches out enough toxins to kill half of the fresh or saltwater fish exposed to them. In fact, even filters from unsmoked cigarettes were found to be lethal to fish – albeit less so than the “smoked” items.
Fishes are not the only victims. Butts are frequently ingested by domestic and wild animals, birds and even young children. The plastic filters are not digestible and can get stuck in the gut, releasing the poisons into the body. The signs are frequently ignored or misdiagnosed as the effects might be cumulative and result in severe problems or even death at some later point. Symptoms of typical cigarette-waste-related poisoning include excessive salivation, excitement, tremors, vomiting, lack of coordination, weakness, convulsions, respiratory failure, and of course, death.
A number of campaigns are being set up to try and make people aware of the dangers of cigarette waste. Studies show that providing more rubbish bins can help – but the ingrained belief that butts are not “litter” means that, even where bins are plentiful, people still have no concerns about simply chucking a butt on the ground. In the military, we were/are just as guilty. Remember the smoke-filled days and nights of radio-stags in the back of a Sultan and the almost automatic way one cleaned up the wagon by simply chucking the fag-ends out the back door just before moving to a new location? That was/is all part of the problem.
Some cities have tried to estimate the cost to the public of the clean-up of cigarette waste as part of their daily rubbish-collecting effort. One American city estimated it consumed over 25% percent of their daily cleaning effort, equating to many millions per year devoted to cleaning up after smokers. The costs involved are not seen to be on the same scale as the medical costs of dealing with smoking-related diseases and so have not figured in many national calculations up to now. However, people are realizing that the “mechanical” costs of cleaning up a cigarette-butt are nothing as compared to the environmental costs of leaving it there – especially if it has become wet and released its toxins.
Is this just one more “environmental scare” designed to make our lives even more boring? It depends on your long-term view of the world in which we live. If we want our children and subsequent generations to have a planet that is able to support them, then we need to start acting now. Whether or not our individual actions make a significant difference should not matter. We cannot take the arguments to others unless we practise at home what we preach abroad.