The Litter That’s Killing Everything and Everyone

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filthy cigarette litterFour and a half trillion. That’s how many cigarette butts are estimated to be littered every year on our streets, sidewalks, parks, downtowns, parking lots, lawns, and everywhere else smokers feel entitled to leave them. That’s 4,500,000,000,000 pieces of toxic, non-biodegradable, chemical-soaked plastic waste that smokers — and smokers alone — pollute the earth with every year. That’s litter deliberately left to poison the water, kill plants and wildlife, and remain in the environment for more than a decade, doing their damage. An estimated 1.69 billion pounds (845,000 tons) of cigarette butts are littered into the environment, every year. EVERY YEAR!

Global cigarette consumption without sufficient waste management constitutes a toxic plastic world for humanity… a unique environmental challenge as it poses not only persistent and ubiquitous chemical contamination with highly toxic substances but also physical contamination as a form of plastic pollution. Source: Frontiersin.org

Cigarette butts are the single most littered item on the whole planet. And it’s only getting worse. A 2009 report noted that “5.6 trillion filtered cigarettes consumed worldwide in 2002, and nine trillion [are] expected by 2025.” According to surveys, roughly “2 billion people worldwide use tobacco products, mostly in the form of cigarettes, with tobacco smoking-related diseases resulting in 4 million deaths per year.”*

And let’s be clear: smokers alone are responsible for the damage, disease, and deaths these toxic butts cause. Yet despite their known threat to health and the environment, despite the visual evidence they create, governments — including our own council — are reluctant to legislate anything that could require smokers to be treated like other polluters or litterers. A study published in the US National Library of Medicine called cigarette butts an “unignorable source for environmental microplastic fibers,” Yet ignore them is what most governments at all levels do.**

A 2019 article in The Conversation was titled “Cigarette butts are the forgotten plastic pollution – and they could be killing our plants.” The author noted,

Cigarette butts or filters are the most littered item on the planet. An estimated 5.6 trillion cigarettes are smoked each year, out of which two thirds are improperly disposed of. That’s [4.5 trillion butts] each year. Since the 1980s, cigarette butts have accounted for 30% to 40% of all litter found in coastal and urban litter clean-ups.

In 2022, the United Nations announced a “UN partnership … to raise awareness about the environmental and health impacts of microplastics in cigarette butts, the most discarded waste item worldwide.” The news release noted:

When ingested, the hazardous chemicals in microplastics cause long-term mortality in marine life, including birds, fish, mammals, plants and reptiles.  These microplastics also enter the food chain and are associated with serious human health impacts, which can include changes to genetics, brain development, respiration rates and more.

This year, the EarthDay organization wrote that “Cigarette butts are actually the most abundant form of plastic waste in the world.” It adds (emphasis added):

A 2022 study explains the effects of cigarette butts on marine life. Animals constantly ingest these plastics, which provokes serious health risks, including suffocation and increased mortality. The same research also explains how microplastics from cigarette butts have been found in human tissues, raising concerns about their potential health impacts.

Microplastics in our organs may have far more serious effects than anyone could imagine. A recent CNN story reported that “Seven different kinds of microplastics were found in four out of five samples of penis tissue taken from five different men… The levels of microplastic shards and types of plastics in human testes were three times greater than those found in dogs, and the dogs are eating off the floor.” The CNN piece explains:

Microplastics are polymer fragments that can range from less than 0.2 inch (5 millimeters) down to 1/25,000th of an inch (1 micrometer). Anything smaller is a nanoplastic that must be measured in billionths of a meter. They form when larger plastics break down, either by chemically degrading or physically wearing down into smaller pieces.

These microplastics may contribute to reproductive problems, can damage male fertility and even cause erectile dysfunction. Microplastics have also been found in men’s testicles. Cigarette butts are a significant source of these microplastics, releasing about 0.3 million tons of microfibers per year by some conservative estimates, and as much as 1.2 million tonnes by other estimates. Every year.

Locally, Keep Collingwood Clean, a volunteer group “dedicated to environmental stewardship,” recently asked council to deal with cigarette butt litter. A story in CollingwoodToday noted, “Local advocacy group requests the town tighten its bylaws around littering and smoking to curb the litter they pick up daily.” Good luck trying to get our pro-deforestation/pro-vehicle/anti-environment council to do anything positive, let alone be responsible with regard to the environment.

Cigarette butts were added to the town’s littering bylaw in 2014. I know because as a councillor I made that motion and it was approved by council (try to find it on our user-hostile town website…). But, as far as I can tell, nothing has ever been done to enforce it. You can often find people smoking in front of the townhall and arena doors and littering their butts there. You can often find people smoking in our public parks despite bylaws to restrict it. Most of the local grocery stores have shoals of discarded butts where staff smoke and litter.***

The group’s presenter said, “…receptacles shouldn’t be placed where people aren’t supposed to smoke, and instead they would be placed where people smoke.” Piffle. If smokers don’t know in advance of restrictions, and the town doesn’t enforce the bylaw, where are they expected to put their butts? It seems they have no choice: on the ground, which is where the problem is. The proper solution is to place butt receptacles everywhere while the town (in conjunction with the local health unit) conducts an education and enforcement program to teach smokers not to litter. Put the receptacles everywhere. Period.****

The proper solution is for council and staff to enforce the bylaw and make an effort to education and inform. But I am not optimistic that our lacklustre council will take any action to remedy the problem. It would mean they can’t duck responsibility and ignore the issue.

Collingwood deserves better.

Notes:

* In Canada, the 2021 statistics show “3.2 million Canadians were either regular or occasional cigarette smokers.” Worldwide the number is estimated at 1.1 billion, and expected to increase between 2024 and 2029 by a total of 13.9 million individuals (+1.29 percent), the eleventh consecutive increasing year. According to the World Health Organization, tobacco kills more than 8 million people per year, “including both smokers and non-smokers who experience second-hand smoke.”

** It’s not as if there isn’t ample and growing medical and other evidence that smoking is harmful, dirty, and toxic to smokers themselves, and to everyone around them. All our governments — including our councillors — need to do is read it. Aside from being an utterly idiotic, antisocial and highly addictive thing to do, smoking also makes people stupid. A study found that smoking shrinks the brain, contributes to cognitive decline, and raises the risk of dementia. It creates a much greater risk of cancer, high blood pressure, and stroke.

Test after test shows smokers show poorer working memory in tests, do worse in sustained attention and information processing speed tests, do worse in arithmetic tests. They exhibit poorer sustained attention, impulse control and planning/reasoning, verbal comprehension, verbal and non-verbal abstraction, and mathematical knowledge. Smoking affects a person’s libido, sexual performance, and fertility, as well as men’s sperm count.

*** The staff report was C2014-01 in the May 12, 2014 council agenda and in it the clerk noted:

Redefining the definition of litter would better assist enforcement officers in carrying out their duties as it would eliminate the somewhat broad definition of litter and replace it with a conclusive definition.

It adds:

Staff will work with public health officials as well as members of the public to communicate the proposed change, including creating an educational flyer / pamphlet that can be posted / handed out to individuals who may contravene the by-law. It is hopeful that through education (and enforcement) that the amounts a cigarette butt litter will be reduced within the Town of Collingwood.

However, I can find no evidence that the collaboration took place or that such a pamphlet was ever produced, let alone distributed. Nor can I find any further action on this:

Additional cigarette butt recepticals may be required, and various locations to be monitored by staff and allocated within existing budgets. Resources required to educate and enforce can be allocated from existing
budgets.

The amended bylaw was approved May 12, 2014. The town’s littering Bylaw No. 2014-040 says (emphasis added):

“Litter” means to throw, drop, place, or otherwise deposit or permit to be deposited any debris, rubbish, filth, refuse, garbage or waste matter of any kind whatsoever and without limiting the generality of the foregoing shall include paper, plastic, paper products, plastic products, cans, animal carcasses and droppings, ashes, bottles, cartons, construction materials, cigarette butts, discarded appliances, clothing, furniture and household effects, inoperative mechanical equipment, kitchen wastes, lumber, packing materials, paper, soil, soot, tree trimmings and prunings, garden waste, stumps, branches, automobile tires, used oil automobile parts and any other unused or unusable material that by reason of its state, condition or excessive accumulation:
(a) Appears to have been cast aside, discarded or abandoned;
(b) Appears to be worthless, useless or of no particular value; or
(c) Appears to be used up, expended or worn out in whole or in part.”

**** As usual, our feckless local media didn’t ask any pertinent questions of councillors after the presentation (When do they ever? Lazy reporters don’t attend council but merely watch the meetings on video). Too much like work, I suppose. While councillors seemed befuddled by the idea of dealing with cigarette litter, town staff threw up the usual roadblocks to having to do the work:

“We would have to go through public engagement about it. There would have to be an analysis. It’s not an easy thing. We would need support through council for enforcement services to be able to implement such a program,” said town clerk Sara Almas.

No, cigarette butts are already included in the town’s littering bylaw. No public engagement is necessary (you didn’t need it for your report C2014-01…). The evidence about the dangers posed by cigarette litter is already available in hundreds if not thousands of documents. But councillors meandered around the issue, carefully avoiding making an actual suggestion of anything positive that might upset staff:

Coun. Steve Perry mentioned that he worried about the message it would send to have cigarette recycling bins around town, while also saying there is no smoking allowed on town properties. “I’m concerned it gives people a false sense of, it’s OK to smoke here,” he said. “It seems like a vicious circle.”

What utter rubbish. The point of the receptacles is to stop the littering and collect the butts rather than have them simply discarded as smokers currently do. Receptacles won’t encourage or stop smokers from their habit, but they may likely reduce litter. The message receptacles send is “We don’t want you to litter here.” Apparently, that’s too complicated a concept for our councillors to understand. It’s about litter, councillors, not about waving your hands.

PS. We also see an increasing amount of litter from vaping — another dirty, illness-causing, toxic, addictive habit — including the plastic tubes and liquid carriers dumped on boulevards, streets, and lawns and it’s a rapidly growing problem. As Time Magazine wrote in a piece titled, The Overlooked Environmental Impact of Vaping,

The CDC Foundation, a nonprofit that supports the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, estimates that each month in the U.S., consumers purchase 11.9 million disposable e-cigarettes. Based on that figure, the new report—from the U.S. PIRG Education Fund, a nonpartisan consumer-interest group—estimates that the disposable vapes sold annually would stretch longer than 7,000 miles if lined up, more than twice the width of the continental U.S.
In addition to creating plenty of plastic waste, discarded e-cigarettes can be considered both e-waste (because of their circuitry and lithium-ion batteries) and hazardous waste (because they contain nicotine). E-cigarettes are also difficult to recycle, and many people don’t even try: garbology research has found evidence of plenty of vape litter. A 2022 survey found that just 8% of teen or young-adult vapers sent their used disposable devices to recycling facilities.

Similarly, the BBC reported that, “Up to 2.7 million single-use vapes were littered in Scotland last year, a Scottish government report estimates… The study estimates that there are 543,000 users of e-cigarettes in Scotland and predicts that without intervention that will rise to 900,000 by 2027… Two-thirds of all users are thought to be aged 25 or under.”

And on Undo.org:

Vape waste is waste associated with vapes, including disposable vapes, pods or cartridges, e-liquid containers and packaging, and vape batteries. Vape waste is especially bad for the environment because it is three forms of waste in one: plastic waste, hazardous waste, and electronic waste (e-waste). All of these are hazardous for the environment.
Vapes create plastic waste. The device body and pod components are made of plastic. Plastic is an environmental problem because it doesn’t biodegrade like organic materials do – it can take up to hundreds of years for some plastic items to decompose. Vapes are also a toxic waste because of the heavy metals in the vape and the nicotine in the e-juice. Finally, vapes are e-waste since they contain lithium-ion batteries and a heating element.

PPS. And then there’s the cost of cigarettes: in Canada a package of 20 costs from $11 to $17, with cartons of 200 from $120 to $152. The average price of a pack in Ontario is currently $12.48 or about $0.62 a cigarette. A smoker consuming half a pack a day would spend about $2,200 a year on cigarettes. A pack-a-day habit would be double that.

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