News Staff Writer
Cigarette filters frequently get littered on the streets of American cities, which end up killing wildlife by choking or poisoning. They also find their way into rivers, oceans and lakes, which makes them a threat to fish as well as land animals.
“It has to do with rain water that flows over sidewalks and into gutters, some of which may empty directly into the streams. From there, the litter continues into the larger rivers and oceans,” said Andrew Laughlin, environmental studies professor at UNC Asheville.
Laughlin said he believes reducing smoking rates, creating biodegradable cigarette filters and fines for cigarette butt litterers are potential solutions.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports 15.5 percent of U.S. adults smoke, which makes cigarette butts a common form of litter.
Many designated smoking sections in public places, such as those on campus at UNC Asheville include ashtrays so that they can be discarded properly. Not all smokers go to a designated place when they need to smoke. This frequently leaves smokers with the choice of either holding on to their cigarette butt until they find an ashtray, or stomping it out on the pavement.
“I only litter cigarette butts when I’m driving.” said Chris Floyd, business management student at UNCA.
Floyd said he only litters his cigarettes when he has no other way of disposing of them without risking a fire. When there’s an ashtray nearby, he uses it.
“Cigarette butts contain filters that hold onto hazardous chemicals. Those chemicals can leach out into the environment causing issues with higher benthic life forms, more specifically fish,” said Eric Bradford, director of operations at Greenworks Asheville.
Additionally, cigarette filters take anywhere from 18 months to 10 years to fully decompose according to Earth Talk.
Greenworks Asheville recently installed a series of filters in community rivers which they refer to as booms and trouts. Last year, according to Bradford, they removed 53,000 pounds of litter.
“We don’t parse out cigarettes versus plastic litter, but I can assure you that we always recover hundreds per outing,” Bradford said.
According to Greenworks, regarding the toxicity of cigarette butts and their polluting effects, there’s enough poison in three cigarette butts to kill a grown trout, or 15 to kill an adult house cat.
“It’s an important topic because these are the most significant form of waste in our oceans, and this is only recently coming to light,” Laughlin said.
A Euromonitor study suggested in 2016 that 5.5 billion cigarettes are consumed globally every year. This likely leaves millions of cigarette butts littered around the world every year, ending up in our wildlife, rivers, lakes and oceans.
Methods of reduction, such as biodegradable cigarette filters, increased littering fines or even trash filters look like much more practical for limiting the pollution caused by littering cigarette butts.