Butt In To Butt Out | October 29, 2007 Issue - Vol. 85 Issue 44 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 85 Issue 44 | p. 31
Issue Date: October 29, 2007

Butt In To Butt Out

Cigarette butts top the litter charts, but a healthy sense of outrage could snuff these eyesores out
Department: Science & Technology | Collection: Safety
News Channels: Environmental SCENE
A gallery of unquestionable demerit To document the plague of littered cigarette butts that I write about in the October 29 issue, I grabbed a camera and walked a several-block perimeter around the headquarters of the American Chemical Society in downtown Washington, DC. It's a lovely and clean-appearing urban area, that is, until you train your eyes toward the streets and sidewalks. I was in search of cigarette butts and I found them everywhere along the street curbs, on sidewalks, in the textured tops of iron manhole covers, in the rectangular slots of metal street gratings, in buildings' window wells, in sewage portals, atop tinder-dry mulch beds, sometimes even in the ashtrays and butt receptacles that many facility managers have placed at the buildings' entry ways. In recent years, the tobacco industry has been producing more than 5 trillion cigarettes, serving some 1.1. billion smokers. No one knows how many of the resulting butts end up as litter, but one 45-minute stroll around a small part of one downtown area suggests that the number is best written out in exponential notation.
Credit: Click image to launch gallery

Over the years, I often have witnessed smokers take a final drag on their cigarettes and then, with nary a sign of self-consciousness or concern, flick their spent butts to the ground. The other day, a grandmotherly butt-flicker drove me to a spontaneous act of guerilla environmentalism and made me want to learn more about the extent and nature of cigarette butt litter.

Call her Ms. Puffentoss. She had, with my full blessing, taken possession of a chair by the outdoor café table at which I, a nonsmoker, had been working. Even so, she lit up without asking if I minded. A bit outraged, I told her I wouldn't have offered the chair had I known she was going to smoke. After we both processed this awkward moment of street candor, she promised she quickly would be done and on her way. But she had one more outrage to perpetrate. After her last deep drag, Ms. Puffentoss flicked the butt to the ground and then scraped it into an ash-paper-tobacco-filter stain on the sidewalk.

"That's disgusting!" I blurted, pointing downward at the butt detritus. "Don't you consider that to be litter!?" With wide eyes and a silent, nicotine-drenched tongue, she skulked away. For my part, I went back to the office and started investigating.

The point of cigarette filters is to capture chemicals and particles (tar) that contribute to smoking's public health rampage. This means that some of these chemicals-non-grata-among them ammonia, formaldehyde, butane, acrylonitrile, toluene, and benzene-end up ensconced in the tuft of long-lasting cellulose acetate fibers of the paper-sleeved filter. Even if cigarette butts were biodegradable, and tobacco giant Philip Morris USA says it is supporting research toward that end, this would only mean the eyesore aspect of butts would be less long-lasting while their breakdown and environmental delivery of chemicals-to-avoid would quicken.

One littered cigarette butt is just gross, but billions of them amount to a vast collective breach of civic responsibility by smokers. The World Health Organization estimates that 1.1 billion people smoke. According to various organizations, including the Department of Agriculture, the tobacco industry in 2004 produced about 5.5 trillion cigarettes, with U.S. smokers consuming about 390 billion of them. The environmental group Clean Virginia Waterways calculates that this translates into about 50 million lb of butts in the U.S.

What happens to the butts that are littered? For almost 20 years, the environmental organization Ocean Conservancy has orchestrated a massive international annual litter cleanup and cataloging project. In its 2006 campaign, collectors registered 7,695,905 items of litter, and 1,901,519 (24.7%) were cigarettes. Every year, cigarette butts rank as the litter leader. Halfway around the world, the annual Keep Australia Beautiful Association's National Litter Index also reveals butts to be the king of litter. According to government statistics, every year about 7.2 billion cigarette butts-enough to necklace the planet 3.6 times-are littered in Australia. These surveys also indicate that something like 15% of littered butts enter sewage systems. And from there, many of the butts make their way into waterways.

There is a dearth of research on whether littered butts are more than eyesores. But the few toxicological studies of butt-adsorbed cigarette nasties only bolster the already no-brainer argument that the smokers of the world-even in their banishment to the street to spare their nonsmoking colleagues from second-hand smoke exposure-should find ashtrays or butt receptacles.

In the late 1990s, for her master's thesis in environmental resources and policy at George Mason University, in Fairfax, Va., Katherine M. Register examined whether used cigarette butts in water have ill effects on tiny crustaceans, called daphnia, which serve as toxicity bellwethers in marine environments. Register, now executive director of Clean Virginia Waterways, placed the daphnia in tanks with different numbers of butts. She found that the equivalent of one used butt per 2 gal of water would kill off most of the tank's daphnia. Most of the crustaceans survived in tanks belittered with the equivalent of 128 unused cigarette filters.

Last year, ecotoxicologist Michael Warne of the Commonwealth Scientific & Industrial Research Organization, in Australia, and colleagues reported corroborating results in Archives of Environmental Contamination & Toxicology. "The majority of aqueous toxicity was attributed to nicotine and ethylphenol," Warne tells C&EN. As it turns out, however, this toxicity is unlikely to show up in the wild. "It is highly unlikely that cigarette butts pose anything but a low hazard to flowing freshwater ecosystems or even nonflowing bodies of any substantial size," Warne and colleagues concluded in 2002 in a hazard analysis.

Even if the toxicology card doesn't hold much scientific water for an anti-butt-litter message, there's documentation of lethal and destructive fires and of sizable municipal cleanup costs due to littered butts that ought to compel the butt-flicking subpopulation of smokers to be more considerate of their environment and fellow citizens. From time to time, some of us might even remind the Puffentoss clan to stop thinking of our world as their ashtray.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.

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