Marine Life and Cigarettes: How Cigarette Butt Litter Harms Ocean Life

Even if they’re dropped on the land, many cigarette butts find their way into the planet’s oceans. Not only do cigarette butts present a choking hazard, they leach toxic chemicals into the water and pose a risk to many forms of marine life.

Most people don’t think about the link between marine life and cigarettes. Smoking couldn’t seem further from the oceanic world occupied by fish and marine mammals, but the interconnectedness of the planet’s water system means that cigarette butts often find their way into the ocean even if they aren’t dropped off the side of a boat or on the beach. When the butts make their way into the water, the chemicals they leach into the environment can have serious effects on the creatures within. Tackling the problem means taking steps to reduce cigarette butt litter, and bringing down the smoking rate even further.

Cigarette Butt Litter and the Ocean: How Many Cigarette Butts Are Littered?  

The issues related to marine life and cigarettes largely come down to the amount of cigarette butter that finds its way into the ocean. The Ocean Conservancy holds an annual International Coastal Cleanup, and the statistics on what they found provides some of the clearest evidence of the scale of the problem with cigarette butt litter in the oceans.

Cigarette butts have been the most commonly found item of litter since the cleanups began. In 2015 – the latest year for which a report is available – the cleanup found a total of 2,127,666 cigarette butts, over twice as many as the next most common form of litter. About half of these cigarette butts were picked up in the U.S., showing that while the problem is global, much of it is concentrated in the U.S..

Finally, the interconnectedness of the planet’s water system means that even cigarette butts littered far from the ocean can end up there. A butt tossed on the street is swept down into a drain, and from there it goes to streams, rivers and ultimately the ocean. This underlines that the overall issue of cigarette butt litter needs to be addressed, not just litter near the ocean.

Are Cigarette Filters Biodegradable?  

Cigarette filters are often assumed to be biodegradable, but this is actually a myth. They’re made from cellulose acetate, and this does degrade in the presence of UV light, but it isn’t biodegradable. Light from the sun will cause them to break into smaller pieces, but those pieces will still persist in the environment.

This is a particular issue because cigarette butts contain several harmful chemicals, and these can be leached into the environment, particularly in marine settings. Cigarette butts have been found to contain nicotine, arsenic, lead, cadmium, copper, chromium, ethylphenol and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, presenting a clear risk to marine life and other animals.

Marine Life and Cigarette Waste: The Toxicity of Cigarette Butt Litter

With so many toxic chemicals finding their way into the surrounding environment as a result of cigarette butt litter, it shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that it adversely affects marine life. This is the most important part of the relationship between marine life and cigarettes, and the main reason we need to take steps to reduce cigarette butt litter.

Studies have shown that cigarette butts in water are toxic to fish, water fleas and marine bacteria. For fish, the evidence shows that smoked cigarette filters with some remaining tobacco are toxic to fish species at concentrations as low as one butt per liter of water. Smoked butts without any residual tobacco are toxic at levels between 2 and 4 butts per liter, and unsmoked filters without tobacco were toxic at concentrations of 5 to 13 butts per liter.

Cigarette-Related Litter: More Risks to Marine Life

Finally, there is another source of risk to marine life from cigarettes in the form of other litter. For example, the plastic packaging around a pack of cigarettes can be eaten after being mistaken for a jellyfish or other food item, and this could become lodged in the throat or intestinal tract, either causing suffocation or problems with digestion. Both of these effects could occur in numerous ocean species, and could easily be fatal.

Marine Life and Cigarette Litter: Minimizing the Damage Done

The effects of cigarette litter on marine life are severe, so steps should be taken to minimize the impact as much as possible. Reducing the waste from cigarettes should be the main priority, because this is the source of the harm to aquatic organisms, and simply providing more disposal locations for smoker, or encouraging the use of pocket ashtrays could solve this problem. Other approaches include mandating that cigarette manufacturers make biodegradable filters, or imposing fines on those caught littering cigarette butts.

The best solution to the problem of marine life and cigarettes is to help reduce the number of people who smoke. Not only will this reduce cigarette waste, it will also be a massive benefit to the smoker’s health.