Smoking’s Impact on the Ocean – How Cigarette Butt Litter Pollutes Our Waters

Smoking has well-known first and second-hand harms, but the disposal of the butts left over after smoking a cigarette can also have serious consequences for our planet’s oceans.

Smoking is the leading preventable cause of death in the U.S., and there is widespread knowledge of the first-hand and second-hand risks of smoking. However, not all of the impacts smoking has on the world are so widely appreciated, and this is especially the case when it comes to the effect of cigarette butts on the environment. In particular, smoking’s impact on the ocean and the marine life within is widely overlooked, but it is another of the many serious impacts of smoking on the planet.

Chemicals in Cigarette Smoke and Cigarette Butts

Smoking’s impact on the ocean ultimately comes down to the various chemicals used as additives in cigarettes and the additional ones created when a cigarette is combusted. There are around 600 additives used in the manufacture of cigarettes, used for everything from retaining moisture in the tobacco right through to flavoring the smoke to make it more tolerable to smokers. However, most of the chemicals are formed when tobacco is burned, and this leads to a total of around 7,000 chemicals in cigarette smoke, with around 69 carcinogens among them, as well as many more toxic chemicals.

Studies have shown that cigarette butts contain many toxic chemicals, including arsenic, nicotine, various heavy metals and a class of compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are released into the environment from discarded cigarette butts. This is the main reason for smoking’s impact on the oceans.

Are Cigarette Filters Biodegradable?

The biggest myth about cigarette waste, and the one most relevant to smoking’s impact on the ocean, is the suggestion that cigarette filters are biodegradable. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. Cigarette filters are photodegradable, meaning that they will break down in the presence of UV radiation from the sun, but they are not biodegradable. This ultimately means that while the filter may eventually break down into tiny pieces, those pieces still persist in the environment.

The Problem of Cigarette Butt Litter in the Oceans

The reason for smoking’s impact on the oceans should be clear from the preceding two sections: the chemicals leached into the environment from cigarette butts are often toxic, and could easily pollute the ocean and the marine ecosystem. All that is needed is for cigarette butts to find their way into the ocean.

The Ocean Conservancy’s annual International Coastal Cleanup has provided some of the clearest evidence about the number of cigarette butts that make their way into the oceans. Cigarette butts are the most widely-recovered item from these cleanups, and in 2015, the cleanup recovered 2,127,666 cigarette butts from oceans around the world. From the U.S. alone, there were 1,078,798 cigarette butts recovered, over half of the total recovered across the entire planet. These are only the numbers collected, too, so they are almost certainly underestimates for the true numbers in the oceans.

How Smoking Damages Ecosystems and Marine Life

The abundance of cigarette butts in the ocean and the toxic chemicals they leach into their surroundings have consequences for marine life in the area. Studies have shown that even small quantities of cigarette butts in ocean water can be fatal to fish and marine organisms.

One study tested two different cigarette butts – one smoked right down to the filter and another with a small amount of tobacco remaining – and one un-smoked cigarette, by putting a single butt in a liter of water with fish. The results were shocking: even one butt, regardless of whether tobacco was still present or not, killed about half of the exposed fish. Other studies have shown that cigarette butts are toxic to water fleas and marine bacteria.

Based on this, you may think that the only way to reduce smoking’s impact on the oceans is to stop littering of cigarette butts on beaches, but unfortunately the issue is more complicated than this. When you toss a cigarette butt on the street, it’s swept up into the drains on the side of the street, and from there, is passed to streams, rivers and ultimately the ocean.

Although smoke-free indoor air laws have been positive, overall, a downside is that more smokers are now tossing their cigarette butts in the street and contributing to this issue.

Protecting Our Oceans From Smoking

Smoking’s impact on the oceans isn’t easy to address because regardless of where cigarette butts are littered, they can make their way into the water cycle. The most obvious solution to the problem is to continue in our efforts to reduce the number of smokers in society. However, other options are available, including forcing cigarette companies to make filters biodegradable, imposing fines on anybody caught littering cigarette butts, ensuring there are more locations to responsibly dispose of cigarette butts and more. Whatever approach is used, reducing the waste from cigarettes should be a priority to protect our oceans.