Plastic straws and bags have been receiving a lot of negative media recently. Neither are great for the environment, however the most littered plastic items around the world are actually cigarette butts and their negative environmental impact seems to have been going under the radar.

Though dropping litter in the street is now seen as taboo, flicking a cigarette butt out of the car window is still commonplace.

Five trillion cigarettes are consumed worldwide every year and an estimated four trillion of those are dropped as litter.

Though most people assume from the soft, cotton-like feel that cigarette filters are made from natural materials, the truth is they are actually made from a non-biodegradable fibrous web of micro-thin plastic.


Cigarette filters were first introduced in the 1950s in response to growing evidence that smoking caused cancer. As part of a marketing campaign, the filters were added to the end of a cigarette and advertised as making cigarettes "better for your health" to help concerned smokers switch to a 'healthier' filtered cigarette as an alternative to quitting.

Scientifically, filters were found not to reduce the risk of cancer or other fatal diseases associated with smoking, however the marketing worked and the market share of filtered cigarettes overtook those of non-filtered versions.

Today, almost all cigarettes have filters, and studies have shown that smokers mistakenly believe that the filters are there to reduce their risk of inhaling carcinogenic chemicals.

Specifically designed to give smokers a false sense of security, some cigarette filters contain pH-sensitive chemicals which cause them to turn from white to brown once air is sucked through them.

This is to make smokers think they are seeing the filter visibly trap dangerous brown chemicals preventing them from entering their lungs whereas the truth is that most of the dangerous chemicals are transparent and pass through the filter anyway.

Only tar and nicotine are significantly blocked by the filter which led to smokers sucking harder on their cigarettes to draw in more nicotine which was then connected to a rise in deep lung adenocarcinomas.

 Cigarette butts are often tossed from cars. Photo / File
Cigarette butts are often tossed from cars. Photo / File

After smoking a cigarette, the discarded butts contain hundreds of chemical additives including arsenic and lead which can leach out into their surrounding environment where they are left.

Made by mixing cellulose from cotton or wood with acetic acid the plastic cigarette butt takes over 10 years to degrade and when it does, it breaks down into smaller chemical-filled microplastics.


Research published last month in the journal Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety showed that one cigarette butt left on grass or soil can harm nearby plant growth cutting down germination and development of plants. In the study cigarette butts on the ground were found to cut the germination success of grass by 10 percent and clover by 28 per cent.

A previous study has also shown that the equivalent of 1 cigarette butt per 1 litre of water was enough for 50 per cent of fish to die within 48 hours in a lab tank. Although our oceans are not a closed system like a fish tank is, the effect of cigarette chemicals on our marine ecosystem is often ignored.

Disposing of cigarette butts properly so they end up in a landfill is the better of two evils, but it only moves the problems to create chemical concentrations in soil in specific areas, and still creates a danger for birds feeding off the landfill waste.

For as long as people still choose to smoke, cigarette butt littering will continue to be an issue. Perhaps environmental conservation could be a new peer pressure motive to help those concerned about the environment to quit for good.