Filters in cigarette butts, the most common form of litter, leach assorted toxic chemicals and microplastic pollution into the environment — and must be “completely banned”. This is the rallying cry of environmental scientists from Sweden, who have studied both the impact of waste cigarettes on wildlife and the behaviour of smokers.
Invented in the 1950s to make cigarettes “safer”, filters are now found in 90 percent of cigarettes sold. In fact, it is estimated that a staggering 4.5 trillion filtered cigarettes are smoked and butted each year — 65 percent of which are not disposed of in a waste bin or ashtray.
Ecotoxicologist Professor Bethanie Carney-Almroth of the University of Gothenburg said: “The filter is full of thousands of toxic chemicals and microplastic fibres.”
In fact, it is estimated that a total of 0.3 million tonnes of plastic fibres are released into the environment from cigarette butts every year — the same as released, from clothes, via all the household washing machines in the world.
Prof. Carney-Almroth added: “So it’s not just any piece of plastic that’s being discarded into the environment. It’s hazardous waste.”
In their study, to determine the impact of filter chemicals on wildlife, Prof. Carney-Almroth and her colleagues exposed aquatic mosquito larvae to both those toxins found in cigarette butts after smoking, as well as those substances in the filter from the start.
Their analysis found that the toxins in cigarette filters led to a 20 percent increase in the mortality rate of the juvenile insects.
The findings build on previous research which has shown that the toxins contained within filters can have an adverse effect on various other aquatic organisms.
For example, one study found that just two cigarette butts left in a litre (1.75 pints) of water for four days released toxins at a high enough concentration to kill fish.
Prof. Carney-Almroth added: “Cigarette filters are also a major source of the microplastics that find their way into our environment.”
This pollution, she noted, is known to have “a major negative impact on biological life.
“The European Union has already classified cigarette filters as hazardous waste.”
Putting out more ashtrays and cigarette bins do little to keep filters from being littered, the researchers said.
Following an observational study on smokers in Gothenburg, the team found many smokers still throw their cigarette butts on the ground even in places where ashtrays are provided.
Similar findings have been made in the UK — with research by Keep Britain Tidy finding that 52 percent of regular smokers saying they thought putting cigarettes down the drain was acceptable, while 11 percent said they did not consider cigarette butts to be litter.
In fact, as of this year, cigarette manufacturers in Prof. Carney-Almroth’s country will be forced to pay the Swedish Environmental Protection agency a fee to help monitor and pick up litter.
(This “fixed levy” covers the makers of various disposable products that are commonly discarded in the environment — including, for example, thin plastic carrier bags, single use plastic cup lids, and wet wipes.)
Professor Carney-Almroth said: “The clean-up costs municipalities millions of kronor [thousands of pounds] but there will still be many cigarette butts in the environment.
“We are now conducting a survey of plastic litter across all of Sweden with the aid of citizen science, in what we’re calling ‘The Plastic Experiment’.
“That way, we can work with school children and others to get better figures on where and how many cigarette butts with filters are found in the environment, in addition to other problematic plastic products.”
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For Prof. Carney-Almroth, there are just no good arguments for filters to remain part of cigarettes — with the expert saying they are a marketing tool, not a protective health device.
As she and nine of her colleagues explain in the journal Science of the Total Environment, “Research has confirmed that filters never made smoking safer, but instead imposed additional health hazards.
“For example, filters splinter, causing smokers to inhale plastic fibres.”
When it comes to eliminating plastic and toxic waste, they added, “cigarette filters are a ‘low-hanging fruit’: a hazardous, expendable product with no significant benefit to society.
Cigarette filters, Prof. Carney-Almroth concluded, “have to be taken off the market entirely.
“It’s not the right approach to focus on making tobacco producers pay for clearing up the filers.
“The problem should be prevented in the first place, rather than cleaned up later.”
The full findings of the study were published in the journal Microplastics and Nanoplastics.
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