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Butt Litter

April 3, 2009

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.


11 Comments leave one →
  1. judy cahill permalink
    April 3, 2009 11:06 pm

    As a reformed smoker(who did not throw her butts on the ground EXCEPT very occasionally) I am embarrassed to admit that I LOVED this habit! I love the way you write about the subject without preaching and pointing fingers. You get your point across. Glad I no longer have to deal with the whole topic.

  2. maukamakai permalink*
    April 3, 2009 11:19 pm

    Thanks so much Judy. That’s our goal. Congratulations on quitting!

  3. Kerri permalink
    April 11, 2009 10:38 pm

    “Cigarettey” and “no one gives a sh*t about water fleas” had me rolling…

  4. April 22, 2009 3:00 pm

    Solution- ban filters
    The remaining cigarette is biodegradable and Therefore “greener” and lessening the litter issue.
    The smoker can take in the toxins – they already know smoking is a little unhealthy.
    The smoker may get more nicotine per cigarette and thereby need fewer smokes.
    By the time I think of any moere benefits I might take up smoking again.
    Filters are for sissies.

  5. April 22, 2009 3:38 pm

    Nice piece. I do think that 30% figure quoted by Keep America Beautiful sure seems fishy.

    Are they talking about 30% of total weight or volume? I mean wouldn’t one empty can be the equivalent of hundreds of cigarette butts?

    The only thing that makes sense is that cigarette butts are 30% of the number of items picked up, regardless of weight or volume.

  6. Kelsey permalink*
    April 22, 2009 4:06 pm

    I think you’re right, WJ. Cigarette butts probably make up 30% of the items collected. In terms of weight or volume, butts are probably pretty puny. Plastic bags would certainly win in the volume category and as you said, one empty can is definitely heavier than a butt.

  7. knut permalink
    June 21, 2009 6:39 pm

    Hi, in Sweden we have the same problem with butts on the ground.
Last year a clean-up-organisation and the gowerment in Stockholm introduce a mobil
buttscollector Cigbuster.
You can see and have more information about Cigbuster on the
    I am a smoker and I use Cigbuster every day.
And I recommend this smart item


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