Hypothetical situation: Let’s say you’ve got a lit object between your lips. As it burns, the fire gets closer and closer to your face. What do you do? Probably (hopefully) get that burning little bugger away from your face ASAP.
According to litter statistics, a lot of smokers (annually, 4.3 trillion butts’ worth of smokers) are in such a hurry to get the burning embers out of their mouths that they toss their butts on the ground. Of course, there are plenty of responsible smokers who recognize that they will need a place to put their cigarettes once the end gets dangerously close to their lips. These folks depend on a crazy little invention called an ashtray.
One source reports that Americans drop 250 billion butts on the ground each year. In the UK, where they weigh their butts, smokers ditch 200 tons of butt litter annually.
A butt isn’t just a butt. A butt contains the cigarette’s filter, which is usually made of cellulose acetate—the same stuff that award ribbons and high-end playing cards are made of. Cellulose acetate filters take anywhere from one to 12 years to degrade. That makes for some long-lasting litter, but what’s really scary is the stuff in the filter.
The purpose of a cigarette filter is to trap the really toxic stuff, the more than 165 chemicals that make cigarettes so cigarettey.* Assuming the filter does its job, it becomes a little pocket of toxicity that hangs out in the environment long after it’s been in someone’s mouth. Of course, the chemicals don’t necessarily stay all neatly packaged in that pocket. After one hour in water, cadmium, lead and arsenic leach out of a cigarette butt resulting in non-point source water pollution. (That’s a fancy way to say that the pollution can’t be traced to a single identifiable source like a sewage pipe or an oil spill.)
These chemicals are lethal to water fleas. Within 48 hours, the chemicals leaching out of one butt in two liters of water will kill a water flea. Of course, the “save the water fleas” campaign hasn’t been nearly as successful as the save the whales campaign because no one really gives a s**t about water fleas. But what kills a water flea is likely to kill (or at least seriously mess up) other types of plankton. Since plankton forms the base of the food chain, messing with plankton risks screwing up the whole aquatic ecosystem. No one wants that.
Water pollution is just one effect of butt littering, beside the obvious potential risk of forest fires. Cigarette butts can also find their way into the mouths (and bellies) of curious pets, wildlife and toddlers. Besides being totally gross—and a choking hazard—swallowing a butt can make an animal feel full. A stuffed (in the full of food sense) animal won’t eat and an animal that doesn’t eat will eventually starve to death.
Bad. Bad. Bad. So what are we gonna do about the global butt litter problem? Well, we’ve got three options:
1.) Pick up all the butts and throw them in the garbage. Keep America Beautiful reports that cigarette butts make up 30% of all the litter collected in clean-up efforts.
2.) Encourage smokers to use those handy-dandy ashtray thingies.
3.) Turn butts into clothes. Huh? Alexandra Guerrero, a Chilean designer, collects cigarette butts, purifies them, and then shreds them to make a wool-like material. She combines the shredded butts with natural wool to create a yarn that’s 20% recycled butts. So far, she’s made a dress, a hat, a poncho and a vest. She’s also created an exfoliating soap using the shredded cigarette filters.
*Sorry folks, we don’t smoke. Would tasty be the right word? Addictive? Burnable? Really, we have no idea what role these chemicals play in the smokability of a cigarette. We just know they’re in there.