10.16 The environmental impact of tobacco use

Last updated: December 2016 

Suggested citation: Wallbank, L., MacKenzie, R., Freeman, B., & Winstanley, MH. 10.16 The environmental impact of tobacco use. In Scollo, MM and Winstanley, MH [editors]. Tobacco in Australia: Facts and issues. Melbourne: Cancer Council Victoria; 2016. Available from: http://www.tobaccoinaustralia.org.au/chapter-10-tobacco-industry/10-16-the-environmental-impact-of-tobacco-use

Waste by-products of the approximately 6.3 trillion cigarettes smoked globally every year include some 300 billion cigarette packs that produce an estimated 1,800,000 tonnes of waste, paper, cellophane, foil and glue, and trillions of cigarette butts that are littered into the environment.1, 2 Despite Australia’s declining smoking rates, approximately 2.6 million smokers consume some 20 billion cigarettes per year, and discard some 7 billion butts into the environment.3 According to Keep Australia Beautiful’s National Litter Index, cigarette butts were the most frequently identified litter item in 2014–15, at 22 butts per 1000m2.4 Clean Up Australia’s annual Rubbish Report 2015 reported similar findings, noting that cigarette butts  accounted for 11.6% of total rubbish, making them the most commonly collected item.5

10.16.1 Health claims, environmental impacts and cost 

Cigarette filters were created in the mid-twentieth century to keep loose tobacco out of smokers’ mouths.6 Subsequent epidemiological research linking smoking to lung cancer led the tobacco industry to make filters a standard feature of cigarettes, and related promotion highlighted the supposed capacity of filters to capture dangerous components of inhaled smoke without compromising flavour. This led to an enormous shift in products marketed and used; in 1960, 51% of all cigarettes sold in the US were filtered, by 2005 this figure had increased to 99%.7, 8   

Filters, however, have no health benefits, and in fact can lead to greater harm. Ventilation holes in filters that are meant to allow smoke to escape effectively do so in testing machines, but these holes are covered by smokers’ fingers. Smokers also inhale more deeply to compensate for filtration.9 Filters increase risk, first by reducing health concerns, resulting in increased smoker initiation, and postponed quit attempts.8, 10 Second, deeper inhalation of filtered cigarettes produces elevated levels of more-addictive free-base nicotine, which has resulted in a shift in cancer diagnoses from squamous cell carcinomas to more aggressive adenocarcinoma as the most common form of lung cancer in much of the world.11, 12   

Discarded butts are made of cellulose acetate, which is photodegradable but not bio-degradable. Exposure to the sun will eventually break the filter down but the source material  never disappears and becomes diluted in water or soil.2 Cigarette butt litter is a point source for contamination in waterways, including arsenic, lead, copper, chromium, cadmium, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.13, 14 Arsenic, cadmium and lead are included on the World Health Organization’s list of 10 chemicals of major public health concern,15 while polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons have been identified as carcinogenic, mutagenic and teratogenic, and the US Environmental Protection Agency has designated 16 as priority pollutants.16

Marine species including gram-negative bacteria, tide pool snails and some species of fish have shown vulnerability to chemicals leached from butt litter.17-21 Discarded cigarette butts may also present health risks to infants and animals due to indiscriminate ingestion. Severe toxic outcomes due to butt consumption are rare, but the pervasiveness of cigarette butt waste and its potential for adverse health effects on human and animals warrants further investigation.22   

The environmental health impact of chemicals leached into soil and water from cigarette butts is yet to be quantified, but the volume of filters discarded into the environment and identification of residual wastes from medicines, pesticides and plastic microbeads used in cosmetics in water sources suggests that cigarette filter leachates may affect drinking water quality, and result in bioaccumulation in the food chain that could pose a threat to human health.1

Existing estimates and small-scale studies suggest that tobacco product waste clean-up creates significant costs for municipal-level governments. Analysis of the direct cost of butt litter clean-up in San Francisco, based on street sweeping and sewage treatment plant filtration systems costs, found the total ‘recoverable’ annual cost of butt litter across the city to be approximately USD 6.5 million.23 Residential and bush fires cause further economic costs and loss of life. An estimated 7% of all bushfires in Australia are caused by discarded cigarette butts and matches,24 despite a 2010 regulation that requires all cigarettes sold to incorporate reduced fire risk design features.25    

10.16.2 Tobacco industry response to tobacco litter

The tobacco industry has been concerned for more than three decades that aesthetic and environmental concerns related to cigarette butt litter could contribute to the growing social unacceptability of smoking, advocacy action by tobacco control and environmental organisations, and regulation that holds cigarette manufacturers responsible for litter disposal. The industry’s response has been to shift responsibility for butt disposal onto smokers, while promoting its approaches to the problem.6, 26    

Tobacco companies operating in Australia have directly participated in anti-litter campaigns that are aimed at emphasising their contribution to butt clean-up efforts. In 2003, British American Tobacco Australia established the Trust, committing AUD 2.8 million over four years to education campaigns.27 The company later reported that ‘direct financial contribution to the Trust and other butt litter reduction initiatives’ had exceeded AUD 5 million between 2002 and 2012.28 In 2009, the Trust was rebranded as Butt Free Australia, which describes itself as a tobacco industry ‘product stewardship organisation’.29 It has continued the focus on educational campaigns that highlight the environmental impact of butt littering through social and behavioural research, awareness-raising initiatives, resource development, and on-the-ground projects that were summarised by its ‘Not a Good Look’ motto.29 British American Tobacco Australia continued to provide the majority of funding, and remained the organisation’s key stakeholder until it was acquired by KESAB environmental solutions in 2012.29   

There is little evidence that suggests Butt Free Australia’s programs have been effective. In 2006, the New South Wales Department of Environment and Conservation noted that activities and projects funded by cigarette manufacturers had ‘not translated into widespread reduction of cigarette butt litter. The impact of current activities funded by cigarette manufacturers has not delivered a reduction in butt littering’.30 Arguably, the real aim of the Butt Littering Trust has been to support the tobacco industry strategies to focus on community education campaigns, and downplay the role of cigarette manufacturers as the source of butt litter.  

Imperial Tobacco Australia31 and Philip Morris Australia30 have also sponsored butt littering reduction programs with Keep Australia Beautiful and KESAB environmental solutions.  Support has predominantly centred on funding litter surveys, and advertising and educational campaigns, butt bins, posters, stickers and personal ashtrays. The three companies also formed the Tobacco Industry Product Stewardship initiative, which in 2014 funded cigarette butt recycling projects with the Australia branch of the international recycling organisation Terracycle. This initiative encouraged the public to collect and send cigarette butts to Terracycle, using post-paid labels. The organisation would then donate two cents (per kilogram of butts) to the school or charity of the donor’s choice.32 Industry funding was withdrawn without explanation in December 2015. To that point, the program had collected 10.5 million butts in two years,33 an insignificant proportion of the estimated 7 billion discarded into the environment annually.  

Cigarette packaging is another related source of waste and litter in Australia. The three companies that account for almost all cigarette sales (97.6% in 201534), British American Tobacco Australia, Philip Morris International and Imperial Tobacco Australia are members of the Australian Packaging Covenant. A voluntary initiative involving government and industry, the stated aim of the Australian Packaging Covenant is to reduce the environmental impact of packaging.  Reporting to the organisation also provides the industry with opportunities to highlight the need for education, butt disposal infrastructure and industry donations made to environmental groups.3

10.16.3 Policy response

Potential responses to butt litter include application of a clean-up levy on cigarette packs, product labelling, developing biodegradable filters, putting a monetary deposit on filters (similar to bottle recycle programs), increasing the availability of butt litter receptacles, and banning the sale of filtered cigarettes altogether.2, 23 Expanding smoke-free outdoor areas could also have a positive impact, but would be carefully regulated; an unintentional result of extensive smoke-free legislation to date has been to create increased volumes of butt litter outside indoor venues.

While there is some evidence that Commonwealth, state and local government strategies can be effective, campaigns have been sporadic and the majority have not been evaluated. At the Commonwealth level, there have been modest efforts to address butt waste. In cases where it has been identified as an environmental threat, it has generally been as part of a larger initiative, rather than as a problem in its own right. The Department of Environment and Energy’s Threat abatement plan for the impacts of marine debris on vertebrate marine life, for example, includes cigarette butts as marine litter but does not mention their specific toxicity to the marine environment.35 State government anti-litter advertising campaigns have highlighted butt litter. Sustainability Victoria launched the ‘Don’t Be a Tosser - Bin Your Butts’ campaign in 2007 in anticipation of increased volumes of butt litter following the state government’s indoor smoking ban. The campaign was focused on education, and venues were responsible for provision of bins and on-site messaging.36 Local governments have much of the responsibility for dealing with butt litter; Sydney street cleaners, for example, collect 15,000 cigarette butts each day, or nearly 5.5 million annually.37 Local council responses have included advertising, enforcement of fines for littering, and provision of waste management infrastructure such as free portable ashtrays and other receptacles.3 All three levels of government have worked in conjunction with environmental organisations, providing funding and other support to Clean Up Australia and Keep Australia Beautiful and state level affiliates such as Keep Australia Beautiful WA and KESAB environmental solutions, among others.3   

Internationally, there is increasing awareness of the potential environmental implications of the global scale of butt litter, and the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control provides relevant policy direction. Article 18 Protection of the environment and health of persons could potentially be applied to support prohibition of single-use filters; litigation and economic interventions aimed at recovery of costs of industry misconduct and environmental damages; and to ‘innovate, improve and enforce new and existing environmental regulations and agreements’ that apply to all stages of tobacco production and post-consumption waste.1

Discussion of regulation is increasingly focused on extended producer responsibility, an approach that makes producers responsible for the entire life cycle of their products and explicitly puts the onus of waste management of products on the manufacturer. Related initiatives in the United States that cover automobile parts, mobile phones, mercury thermostats, paint, and pesticide containers could serve as models for legislation on cigarette waste.38-41

Recent news and research

For recent news items and research on this topic, click here (Last updated October 2016)     


1. Novotny TE, Bialous SA, Burt L, Curtis C, Luiza da Costa V, et al. The environmental and health impacts of tobacco agriculture, cigarette manufacture and consumption. Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 2015; 93(12):877–80. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26668440

2. Novotny TE, Lum K, Smith E, Wang V, and Barnes R. Cigarettes butts and the case for an environmental policy on hazardous cigarette waste. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 2009; 6(5):1691–705. Available from: http://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/6/5/1691/pdf

3. Wallbank L.A., MacKenzie R, and Beggs P.J. Environmental impacts of tobacco product waste: International and Australian policy responses. Ambio, 2016. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27844421

4. Keep Australia Beautiful. National litter index. Annual report: 2014/ 2015. 2015. Available from: http://kab.org.au/litter-research/national-litter-index/

5. Clean Up Australia. 2015 rubbish report - national. 2015. Last update: 2015; Viewed 18 November 2016. Available from: http://www.cleanup.org.au/files/national.pdf

6. Smith EA and Novotny T.E. Whose butt is it? Tobacco industry research about smokers and cigarette butt waste. Tobacco Control, 2011; 20((Supplement 1)):i2–i9. Available from: http://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/content/20/Suppl_1/i2.abstract

7. US Department of Health and Human Services. How tobacco smoke causes disease: The biology and behavioral basis for smoking-attributable disease: A report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta: US DHHS, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health, 2010. Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/sgr/2010/

8. Warner KE. Tobacco harm reduction: Promise and perils. Nicotine & Tobacco Research, 2002; 4((Suppl 2)): S61– S71. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12580158

9. Kozlowski LT and O’Connor RJ. Cigarette filter ventilation is a defective design because of misleading taste, bigger puffs, and blocked vents. Tobacco Control, 2002; 11((Supplement 1)):i40–i50. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1766061/

10. Stratton KP, Shetty P, R.,, Wallace R, and S. Bondurant S. Clearing the smoke: Assessing the science base for tobacco harm reduction. Washington: National Academy Press, 2001. Available from: https://www.nap.edu/catalog/10029/clearing-the-smoke-assessing-the-science-base-for-tobacco-harm

11. Brooks DR, Austin JHM, Heelan RT, Ginsberg MS, Shin V, et al. Influence of type of cigarette on peripheral versus central lung cancer Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, 2005; 14(3):576–81. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15767332

12. Ito H, K., Matsuo H, Tanaka DC, Koestler H, Ombao J, et al. Nonfilter and filter cigarette consumption and the incidence of lung cancer by histological type in Japan and the United States: Analysis of 30-year data from population-based cancer registries. International Journal of Cancer 2011; 128(8): 1918–28. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20589676

13. Moriwaki H, Kitajima S, and Katahira K. Waste on the roadside, ‘poi-sute’ waste: Its distribution and elution potential of pollutants into environment. Waste Management, 2009; 29(3):1192– 7 Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18851907

14. Moerman JW and Potts GE. Analysis of metals leached from smoked cigarette litter. Tobacco Control, 2011; 20(suppl.1):i30–5. Available from: http://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/content/20/Suppl_1/i30.abstract

15. World Health Organization. Ten chemicals of major public health concern 2015. Last update: 2015; Viewed 15 November 2016. Available from: http://www.who.int/ipcs/assessment/public_health/chemicals_phc/en/

16. United States Environmental Protection Agency. Priority pollutants 2014. Last update: 2014; Viewed 9 December 2016. Available from: http://water.epa.gov/scitech/methods/cwa/pollutants.cfm

17. Register K.M. Cigarette butts as litter - toxic as well as ugly. Underwater Naturalist 2000; 25(2). Available from: http://www.longwood.edu/cleanva/ciglitterarticle.htm

18. Micevska T, Warne M, Pablo F, and Patra R. Variation in, and causes of, toxicity of cigarette butts to a cladoceran and microtox. Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, 2006; 50(2):205–12. Available from: http://www.springerlink.com/content/p433v47q31282841/

19. Slaughter E, Gersberg RM, Watanabe K, Rudolph J, Stransky C, et al. Toxicity of cigarette butts, and their chemical components, to marine and freshwater fish. Tobacco Control, 2011; 20(suppl. 1):i25–9. Available from: http://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/content/20/Suppl_1/i25.abstract

20. Booth D. J., Gribben P., and Parkinson K. Impact of cigarette butt leachate on tidepool snails. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 2015. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25913792

21. Lee W. and Lee C. C. Developmental toxicity of cigarette butts–an underdeveloped issue. Ecotoxicol Environ Saf, 2015; 113:362–8. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25531833

22. Novotny TE, Hardin SN, Hovda LR, Novotny DJ, McLean MK, et al. Tobacco and cigarette butt consumption in humans and animals. Tobacco Control, 2011; 20(suppl. 1):i17–20. Available from: http://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/content/20/Suppl_1/i17.abstract

23. Schneider JE, Peterson NA, Kiss N, Ebeid O, and Doyle AS. Tobacco litter costs and public policy: A framework and methodology for considering the use of fees to offset abatement costs. Tobacco Control, 2011; 20(suppl. 1):i36–41. Available from: http://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/content/20/Suppl_1/i36.abstract

24. Australian Bureau of Statistics. Year book Australia, 2004: Bushfires. 2006. Available from: http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/0/CCB3F2E90BA779D3CA256DEA00053977?opendocument

25. Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. Product safety Australia. 2016. Last update: 2016; Viewed 11 October 2016. Available from: https://www.productsafety.gov.au/

26. Smith EA and McDaniel PA. Covering their butts: Responses to the cigarette litter problem. Tobacco Control, 2011; 20(2):100–6. Available from: http://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/content/20/2/100.abstract

27. Chapman S. Butt clean up campaigns: Wolves in sheep's clothing? Tobacco Control, 2006; 15(4):273. Available from: http://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/content/15/4/273.full

28. British American Tobacco Australia. Submission on the packaging impacts consultation regulation impact statement (PICRIS). Submission to the standing council on environment and water. 2012. Last update: 2012; Viewed 16 November 2016. Available from: http://www.scew.gov.au/system/files/submissions/08131a3d-e461-32e4-ed8d-f151695d5a86/123-british-american-tobacco-aust.pdf

29. Butt Free Australia. About butt free Australia. 2016. Last update: 2016; Viewed 11 November 2016. Available from: http://www.notagoodlook.com.au/about-butt-free-australia/

30. Department of Environment and Conservation NSW. NSW extended producer responsibility priority statement 2005-06. Sydney: Department of Environment and Conservation NSW 2006. Available from: http://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/resources/warr/2005624_prioritystatement2005_06.pdf

31. Imperial Tobacco Group. Corporate responsibility review 2007. Bristol, UK: Imperial Tobacco Group, 2008. Available from: http://www.imperial-tobacco.com/files/environment/cr2007/index.asp

32. Terracycle. Cigarette waste brigade. Available from: http://web.archive.org/web/20150928083108/http://www.terracycle.com.au/enAU/brigades/cigarette-waste-brigade.html [Accessed via the Wayback Machine 22 February 2016].

33. Clean Up Australia. Butt recycling campaign shut down by the tobacco industry. 2016. Last update: 2016; Viewed 30 October 2016. Available from: http://www.cleanup.org.au/au/Whatelsewesupport/recycling-cigarette-butts.html

34. Euromonitor International. Tobacco industry. Company shares; Australia. 2016. Last update: 2016; Viewed 12 December 2016. Available from: http://www.portal.euromonitor.com/portal/statistics/changemeasure

35. Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy. Product stewardship legislation. Available from: https://www.environment.gov.au/protection/national-waste-policy/product-stewardship/legislation

36. Victorian Litter Action Alliance. Don’t be a tosser – sustainability Victoria 2007-2008. 2014. Last update: 2014; Viewed 12 October 2016. Available from: http://www.litter.vic.gov.au/litter-resources/case-studies/cigarette-butts/dont-be-a-tosser

37. City of Sydney. Cigarette butts: Yuk. 2016. Last update: 2016; Viewed 16 November 2016. Available from: http://www.cityofsydney.nsw.gov.au/live/waste-and-recycling/clean-streets/yuk-cigarette-butts

38. Barnes RL. Regulating the disposal of cigarette butts as toxic hazardous waste. Tobacco Control, 2011; 20(suppl. 1):i45–8. Available from: http://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/content/20/Suppl_1/i45.abstract

39. Curtis C, Collins S, Cunningham S, Stigler P, and Novotny TE. Extended producer responsibility and product stewardship for tobacco product waste. International Journal of Waste Resources, 2014; 4(3). Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26457262

40. Curtis C, Novotny TE, Lee K, Freiberg M, and McLaughlin I. Tobacco industry responsibility for butts: A model tobacco waste act. Tobacco Control, 2016. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26931480

41. Novotny T. E. and Slaughter E. Tobacco product waste: An environmental approach to reduce tobacco consumption. Current Environmental Health Reports, 2014; 1:208–16. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25152862


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