10.16 The environmental impact of tobacco use

Last  updated:  October 2021  

Suggested citation: MacKenzie, R., Wallbank, L., Freeman, B., & Winstanley, MH. 10.16 The environmental impact of tobacco use. In Greenhalgh, EM, Scollo, MM and Winstanley, MH [editors]. Tobacco in Australia: Facts and issues. Melbourne: Cancer Council Victoria; 2021. Available from:  http://www.tobaccoinaustralia.org.au/chapter-10-tobacco-industry/10-16-the-environmental-impact-of-tobacco-use

 

The trillions of cigarette butts discarded annually has been traditionally perceived as an aesthetic concern. Research and advocacy campaigns conducted in recent years have reframed butt litter as a significant environmental and economic and issue.1 Approximately six trillion cigarettes are smoked globally every year and two-thirds—four trillion cigarette butts—are littered into the environment.2, 3 Other cigarette waste by-products include some 300 billion cigarette packs that produce an estimated 1,800,000 tonnes of waste paper, cellophane, and foil and glue. Like cigarette butts, much of this packaging is littered onto roadways, pavements, beaches, parks and other green spaces, and can be carried into water systems.3, 4

Estimates of litter have relied upon on-site collection and measurement, interviews, and surveys carried out by researchers and advocacy organisations that focus on hotspots such as beaches, public transport stops and restaurants and bars. More recently, Geographic Information Systems analysis has enabled researchers to much broader geographic areas including entire cites.5, 6

Despite Australia’s declining smoking rates, there are still approximately 2.3 million daily smokers.7 Previous estimates suggested that Australians smoked 20 billion cigarettes annually and that some seven billion butts were discarded into the environment.1 Retail sales of cigarettes in Australia have dropped from 16.2 billion in 2015 to 10.8 billion in 2020;8 government and independent estimates put the volume of illicit trade at between 5.0% and 6.6% of total market in 2018 which would raise total consumption figures slightly.9  The volume of discarded butts does not appear to have decreased in line with reduced cigarette consumption. Using the global estimate that more than two-thirds of butts are littered2 still suggests a figure of approximately seven billion cigarette butts discarded in the Australian environment; while the Australian Department of Agriculture Water and the Environment cites a higher figure of eight billion butts in its 2021 National Plastics Plan.10

Cigarette butts remain the most collected single item of rubbish by leading environmental organisations. Keep Australia Beautiful’s National Litter Index lists cigarette butts as the most frequently identified litter item in 2019, at an average of 16.4 butts and cigarette packaging, per 1000m2 nationally.11 Clean Up Australia’s Rubbish Report 2020 reported similar findings, noting that cigarette butts remained the most common single item collected by volunteers, accounting for 16.2% of all rubbish collected. Its report also noted that the number of butts collected had decreased by almost 6% from 22% in 2019.12

10.16.1 Environmental impacts, costs, and public perception  

Cigarette filters first appeared in the mid-nineteenth century and were designed to keep loose tobacco out of smokers’ mouths. Large scale machine production began in the 1930s but it was not until the late 1950s that filtered cigarettes became widely popular when epidemiological research linking smoking to lung cancer led cigarette manufacturers to make filters with ventilation holes a standard feature of cigarettes.13-15 Industry scientists were aware as early as 1955 that ventilation holes in filters made smoking less harsh and irritating.16   

Machine testing of filtered cigarettes indicated lower tar yields, but this did not translate into reduced risks for smokers who compensated for ventilation by taking longer or more frequent puffs to obtain nicotine. Despite this, industry promotion of ventilated filters highlighted their supposed capacity to capture dangerous components of inhaled smoke—so called ‘light’ and ‘low-tar’ cigarettes—without compromising flavour.17, 18 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%.19, 20 Today, filters with ventilation holes are used in almost all commercially-sold cigarettes. Filter ventilation, however, has no health benefits, and may increase risk to smokers, particularly for lung cancer.16 See Chapter 12 for a discussion of the impact of filters and filter ventilation on smokers’ health risks.   

10.16.1.1 Environmental impacts

Discarded butts are made of cellulose acetate, a synthetic polymer made up of cellulose, acetic anhydride, acetic acid and plasticisers that is photodegradable but has a low degradation rate;21 exposure to sun will eventually break the filter down but the source material remains and becomes diluted in water or soil.22, 23 Toxicity is highest immediately after smoking24, 25 but recent research has revealed a second toxicity peak at two to five years, underlining the long-term hazards of cigarette butts disposed of in the environment.26 There is also emerging evidence that nanoplastics are absorbed and dispersed by butts.27

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.3

Cigarettes contain over 7,000 chemicals including toxins and carcinogens. The number of chemicals in littered butts is unknown, but remaining tobacco in discarded filters contains  

nicotine, nitrosamines, metals, benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene, arsenic, lead, copper, chromium, cadmium, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).25, 28-32 Arsenic, cadmium and lead are on the World Health Organization’s (WHO) list of 10 chemicals of major public health concern.33 PAHs are carcinogenic, mutagenic, teratogenic and bioaccumulative,30, 34 and the US Environmental Protection Agency has designated 16 as priority pollutants35 all of which are found in butts.30

Cigarette butt litter is a point source for contamination in soil and water systems. Research and advocacy campaigns have identified concentrations of butt litter at beaches throughout the world,36-44 including Australia.45-47 High volumes of butts at beaches are due to both their popularity, particularly during holiday season, and distance to urban settings with significant accumulation of butts that can be transported by drainage system runoff and wind  to coastal environments.23 These concentrations pose a threat to local flora and fauna. Marine species including gram-negative bacteria, tide pool snails, crustaceans, some species of fish and freshwater invertebrates have shown vulnerability to chemicals leached from butt litter.23, 48-56

Discarded cigarette butts may also pose health risks to infants and animals due to indiscriminate ingestion; butts have been found in the digestive tract of two species of sea turtles off the northeast coast of Brazil for example.57 Severe toxic outcomes due to butt consumption are rare, however, although the pervasiveness of cigarette butt waste and its potential for adverse health effects on human and animals warrants further investigation.24

10.16.1.2 Costs                                     

Existing estimates and small-scale studies suggest that tobacco product waste clean-up creates significant costs for municipal-level governments. One of the first analyses done was in San Francisco. Based on street sweeping and sewage treatment plant filtration systems costs, it reported in 2011 that the total ‘recoverable’ annual cost of butt litter clean-up across the city was approximately USD 6.5 million.58 A 2020 study of butt clean-up in the thirty largest U.S. cities found that costs ranged  range from US$4.7 mn to US$90 mn annually; the annual mean per capita cost was US$6.46 across the cities, and the combined total was total TPW cost for all 30 cities combined was US$264.5 mn per year.59 Other cost estimates for butt clean up include £40 mn (US$ 55mn) in the United Kingdom; 60  €225 mn (US$ 260 mn) in Germany; 61 and €100million (US$ 115 mn) in France.62 A recent estimates of associated costs in Australia put the figure at a “conservative” AUS$73 mn.63

Residential and bush fires cause further economic costs and loss of life around the world.64  An estimated 7% of all bushfires in Australia were caused by discarded cigarette butts and matches for 1976-77 to 1995-96,65 and despite a 2010 regulation that requires all cigarettes sold to incorporate reduced fire risk design features (see Attachment 12.2),66 discarded cigarettes continue to be an ignition source for house fires, bushfires and other fires. In 2014–15, it was estimated that cigarettes were responsible for 4,558 fires in Australia, and a cost of $80.8 million (which excludes the cost of bushfires).63

10.16.1.3 Public perceptions 

Despite the growing literature on the environmental impacts of discarded butts, changing public perceptions has been slow. A survey of adult smokers in the US found that 71% of respondents, regardless of smoking status, were not aware that plastic was used in cigarette filters and 20% believed filters to be  biodegradable.67 A 2020 New Zealand study similarly reported that 20% of smokers thought that butts were biodegradable, but that only 13% of non-smokers shared this belief,68 while a study of smokers’ knowledge conducted in Germany reported in 2021 that 64% of those interviewed (including 57% of current smokers) were unaware that cigarette filters are primarily composed of synthetic material.69 Such misconceptions would seem likely to inform smokers’ attitudes, which include a failure to recognise butts as a source of pollution, as a less serious problem than bottle and food wrappers, and to justify littering as part of the smoking process.23 

 

10.16.2 Tobacco industry response to tobacco litter

Cigarette manufacturers have 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 to regulation that holds cigarette manufacturers responsible for litter disposal. A range of strategies have been considered in response.

US firms Philip Morris, Brown & Williamson, and RJ Reynolds have invested in research into biodegradable filters, but prototypes have been unpopular with smokers in consumer testing.22 The industry has determined that biodegradable filter design has, to date, been unmarketable and is likely to result in more littering,70 and its research has shown that the biodegrading process would still deposit disintegrated components into the environment,22 but they have maintained interest in their potential.

Biodegradable filters have been described as a “palliative”, as reducing the residence time in the environment of a filter would not resolve any of the problems associated with butt leeching and pollution and would, in fact, accelerate the process.23, 49 There are also concerns that seemingly safer filters would reduce smokers’ guilt about littering and provide the tobacco industry with new opportunities for marketing and to improve its reputation through related corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives.23, 71

Other responses such as organising anti-litter campaigns and distributing portable and permanent ashtrays have relied on an underlying strategy of shifting responsibility for butt disposal onto smokers, despite industry beliefs that smokers were not open to anti-litter efforts.13 Leading cigarette manufacturers have also developed alliances with environmental advocacy organisations such as Keep America Beautiful in the US, the UK and Canada to co-sponsor anti-littering campaigns, street butt collection bins and clean up events.  Research in the US found that related media coverage that  mentioned  Keep America Beautiful was more positive in its reporting of the tobacco industry, despite partnership programs achieving no significant change in levels of cigarette butts discarded.72

While largely ineffective, industry pronouncements on butt litter and clean up initiatives provide important CSR opportunities which have been characterised by selective use of information that is assessed by external firms that have an interest in maintaining commercial relationships with the companies funding them.73 Reporting, therefore, “may be opportunistic both in the scope of data reported and presentation, highlighting sustainability success while omitting data on environmental damages or increased emissions due to manufacturing that do not hew to the desired progressive narrative arc of reducing ecological pollution.”73

Three companies accounted for 94.6% of cigarette sales in Australia in 2020; British American Tobacco Australia (BAT) (39.7%), Imperial Tobacco Australia (Imperial)(30.5%) and Philip Morris Australia (PM) (24.4%).8 All three have actively participated in anti-litter campaigns to demonstrate their commitment to clean-up efforts. In 2003, BAT Australia established the Butt Littering Trust, committing AU$2.8 mn over four years to education campaigns.74 The company later reported that “direct financial contribution to the Trust and other butt litter reduction initiatives” had exceeded AU$5 mn between 2002 and 2012.75 In 2009, the Trust was rebranded as Butt Free Australia, which describes itself as a tobacco industry “product stewardship organisation”.76 The renamed organisation has continued to 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.76 BAT Australia continued to provide the majority of funding, and remained the organisation’s key stakeholder until it was acquired by KESAB environmental solutions in 2012.76  

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’.77 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 Australia and PM Australia78 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. Industry funding was withdrawn without explanation in December 2015.79 To that point, the program had collected 10.5 million butts in two years,79 an insignificant proportion of the estimated seven billion discarded into the environment annually.  

The Tobacco Industry Product Stewardship Group continues to operate and provides member companies useful CSR material. In its 2020 report to the Australian Packaging Covenant (APCO), BAT statement that it continued as “an active member of the voluntary Tobacco Industry Product Stewardship Group, which, together with the other major tobacco companies, works to tackle the social and environmental impacts of tobacco product litter”,80 also appears on its corporate website.81

APCO is a voluntary initiative involving government and industry that describes its vision as “a packaging value chain that collaborates to keep packaging materials out of landfill and retains the maximum value of the materials, energy and labour within the local economy.”82  Membership of the three leading cigarette manufacturers in the market provides it with opportunity to publicise its sustainability programs, primarily through its Annual Reports and Action Plans. In 2020, all three companies emphasised their commitment to meeting recycling targets and use of renewable materials in production facilities and offices.80, 83, 84 None of the reports mention butt litter, and references to Post Consumer Recovery focus on cigarette packaging recoverability.

10.16.3 Policy response

Internationally, there is increasing awareness of the potential environmental implications of the global scale of butt litter. The WHO’s 2017 report Tobacco and Its Environmental Impact: An Overview85 calls for greater attention and action to deal with the environmental burden of the cigarette lifecycle, and Article 18 (Protection of the environment and health of persons) of its Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) could 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.3 And adoption of the FCTC as target 3a of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals underlines the need to focus on the tobacco industry as a key contributor as to environmental degradation as well as to health inequalities.73

All three levels of government in Australia 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.1 Typical 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.22, 58 Expanding smoke-free outdoor areas could also have a positive impact, but would need to 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. There is some evidence that Commonwealth, state and local government strategies can be effective but campaigns have been sporadic, and the majority have not been evaluated.

At the Commonwealth level, there have been modest efforts to address butt waste, but these have been limited or imprecise. The  National Plastics Plan 2021, for instance, states only that federal government will “initiate an industry-led cross-sectoral stewardship taskforce to reduce cigarette butt litter in Australia and consider potential stewardship schemes.”10 Given the tobacco industry’s record of influencing and manipulating discourse on self-regulation and research,86, 87 including environmental responsibility,13, 73  the government’s plan for an industry-led taskforce raises significant concerns about its real commitment to dealing with butt litter.

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 focused on education, and venues were responsible for provision of bins and on-site messaging. Sustainability Victoria stated that all campaign goals were met, including a 50% reduction in butt litter around participating venues.88 

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.89 Responses at this level of government have included education campaigns, fines for littering, and provision of waste management infrastructure such as free portable ashtrays and other receptacles.1, 90

The possibility of recycling cigarette butts has attracted considerable interest, and research has looked into mixing butts into the production of bricks and asphalt among other uses. The idea remains controversial however as working with the hazardous materials contained in cigarette butts has not been adequately researched91 and it has been suggested that all steps in the process constitute a socio-economic threat.57

Hopes that butts would be included in directives banning single use plastics have so far been unrealised. As noted above, the Australian government’s 2021 plastics initiative does not go beyond establishing an industry-led taskforce to consider ways to deal with butt litter,10 and the European Union directive on banning a number of single use plastic items92 does not include cigarette butts for reason that not clear, although attention has been drawn to the significant lobbying by the tobacco industry during negotiations around the EU’s earlier regulation, the Tobacco Products Directive.93

Discussion of regulation is increasingly focused on extended producer responsibility (EPR), 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 US that cover automobile parts, mobile phones, mercury thermostats, paint, and pesticide containers could serve as models for legislation on cigarette waste.2, 70, 94, 95 Who is responsible for which products varies however, and disposal of car batteries and tyres is the responsibility of the retailer, while consumers are meant to deal with most other waste. Effective industry EPR that required manufacturers to collect, transport and dispose of discarded butts would remove the economic cost from state and local governments.94

Relevant news and research

For recent news items and research on this topic, click  here. ( Last updated August 2022)

     

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