Dear EarthTalk: Has anyone ever studied the environmental impact of discarded cigarettes? I’m constantly appalled at the number of drivers I see pitching their butts out their car windows.
—Ned Jordan, via email
It’s true that littered cigarette butts are a public nuisance, and not just for aesthetic reasons. The filters on cigarettes—four fifths of all cigarettes have them—are made of cellulose acetate, a form of plastic that is very slow to degrade in the environment. A typical cigarette butt can take anywhere from 18 months to 10 years to decompose, depending on environmental conditions.
But beyond the plastic, these filters—which are on cigarettes in the first place to absorb contaminants to prevent them from going into the lungs—contain trace amounts of toxins like cadmium, arsenic and lead. Thus when smokers discard their butts improperly—out the car window or off the end of a pier or onto the sidewalk below—they are essentially tossing these substances willy-nilly into the environment.
Studies done by Johns Hopkins University, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and even the tobacco industry itself show that these contaminants can get into soils and waterways, harm or kill living organisms and generally degrade surrounding ecosystems.