Sandy Butts: A Breakdown of Cigarette Litter

I greeted this morning with yoga overlooking the ocean. Powered by some chaturanga and zen, I departed my hostel with a reuseable shopping bag, two cardboard boxes, and plastic grocery bags I found on the street. My mission: to pick up plastics and litter from the beach. While I was successful in removing litter, it was not the litter I expected.

Iquique is a coastal town in the north of Chile.




I have spent the last few days enjoying the warm sun, clear ocean waters, and exotic company of my hostel bunk-mates. The town wakes each morning to a beautiful pacific coastline. Waves break on rocks of the north beach forming animated pools. The clear water reveals urchins, clams, and other sea creatures sheltered from the tide. Each morning I run along the beach watching the seagulls, oystercatchers, vultures, and pigeons roosting on boats near shore. After my run, I climb the rafters of my hostel to a terrace and practice yoga to the backdrop of crashing waves. But, however beautiful this place, the beach cannot disguise the presence of litter. The sands reveal a dirty secret about the human presence at this beach.

As a 5Gyres ambassador, I take a responsibility to our planet and our oceans. To fulfill this responsibility I try to leave every place I visit cleaner than I found it. When I woke in Iquique this morning that was my mission.

Litter does not belong on the beaches we lie on, the sand our children play in, and the oceans that purify our air. Today at the beach, my hands reeked of burnt cigarette. After three hours bent over the sand, I filled an entire (standard) grocery bag with cigarette butts. I had to scrub my hands with salt to remove the odor.



“Only 10% of cigarette butts are properly deposited in ash receptacles.  A survey of more than 1,000 smokers found that 35% of smokers toss five or more cigarette butts per pack on the ground” –Cigarette Litter Prevention Program

I am not telling anyone what they should put in their own body. But as a fundamental concern for the environment, cigarette litter is a global concern. Cigarette butts were reported as the primary source of litter on beaches by the Ocean Conservancy following the 2016 clean up. The numbers below only represent the litter collected, not the litter remaining in the ocean and buried in the sand:




At number 1, cigarette butts represent 25% of the trash removed during the 2016 Ocean Conservancy clean up. In a survey conducted by Keep America Beautiful, 77% of smoking participants stated that “cigarette butts are litter” however at least 65% of consumed cigarettes are littered!!!?! In the same survey, it was revealed that cigarettes were discarded, on average, 31ft (9.4m) from an ash tray. On the beach I cleaned today, at least twelve trash cans stood empty.

Cigarettes are litter just like every grocery bag and bottle.

Millions of expired cigarettes litter our earths sandbox. Here, I am going to briefly discuss the environmental implications. The implications of tobacco originate from four distinct stages: crop cultivation; manufacture and transportation; consumption; and disposal. Here I will focus briefly on production and primarily on the affects from disposal.


Tobacco (Nicotine) & Additives Production

Tobacco is a part of the nightshade family. Most of the negative environmental impacts (in addition to human rights issues) of tobacco come in the form of cultivation, curing, manufacture and transport. The tobacco takes land to grow and often large tobacco companies will lobby for the land in middle and low-income nations. This land is typically used to provide food sustenance to the local population. Nicotine toxicity in a common issue amongst the tobacco handlers particularly in adolescene [WHO].

Nicotine is the toxic and addictive alkaloid contained in the tobacco leaf. In its pure form, nicotine is one of the most deadly plant derivatives. The desirable component of nicotine comes in the form of adrenaline following ingestion. This surge of adrenaline, incidentally raises blood pressure, effects the central nervous system, and constricts blood vessels in humans. All effects associated with increased risk of cardiovascular, respiratory, and gastrointestinal disorders [Harmful Effects of Nicotine].

In the environment, nicotine can be highly destructive as a powerful insecticide. Nicotine is highly soluble in water. When leached into the ocean or ingested by birds, in high enough concentration nicotine has serious implications to wildlife.

*Interestingly several other plants in the nightshade family also contain trace amounts (less than 200 nanograms) of nicotine including: tomatoes, eggplant, and potatoes [Common Food with Nicotine Content].

On average, a single cigarette contains 4% additives or 10% of the total tobacco weight. The exact amounts of any additive are not moderated because cigarettes are not regulated by the food and drug administration. There are as many as 1400 potential additives ranging from harmless cocoa to sweetners to glycerol. The burning of glycerol can cause adherence in the normal clearing of mucous from the lungs. When smoked the additives produce a thick tar. The chemical process of a smoking cigarette is known to produce forty-three distinct carcinogens including: carbon monoxide, cadmium, ammonia, nitrogen dioxide, formaldehyde, hydrogen cyanide, arsenic, and hydrogen sulfide [Clean Virginia Waterways].

Annually, in the cultivation, manufacture and dispersal of Tobacco, the industry produces “2,000,000 tonnes of solid waste, 300,000 tonnes of non-recyclable nicotine-containing waste, and 200,000 tonnes of chemical waste” [WHO].

Wrapper and Filter Disposal

The paper wrapper is arguably the lowest environmental impact accounting for the inherent carbon footprint of the manufacture and transport. Hot-melt glues like polyvinyl acetate emulsion are used to seal cigarette seams and filters. After the paper degrades, these expired filters remain.

The same properties that make these filters desirable, make them highly destructive to the environment. Cigarette filters are designed to absorb vapors and to accumulate particulate. Discarded filters contain the toxic tar of tobacco and additives. As a result of countless hours bleaching in the sun, this tar leaches into the soil and groundwater.

To make matters worse for the environment, 95% of cigarette filters are made of plastic!! Cellulose Acetate to be specific. This white fiber is often mistaken for cotton. Cotton was the original filter before being th replaced by the more economical and fire-retardant acetate tow.  While other materials have been tested, they were rejected for  the taste of acetate… because who doesn’t like melted plastic. At production stage these filters are already considered microplastics (in another article I will cover microplastics in greater depth). Here I will briefly highlight the macro and micro issues with plastic:

  • In 2015, the global production of plastic was ~322 million metric tons. PlasticsEurope stated this growth in production as a success… Despite the EPA reporting only 9.5% of plastic was recycled in 2014. The US alone discards enough plastic waste to cover 11,000 rugby fields each year. If all plastic were recycled in the US, there would be roughly 1 billion tons of crude oil savings — not to mention the shear amount of land use to dump waste each year.

One ton of recycled plastic saves:

5,774 kWh of electricity.

685 gallons of oil.

98 million Btu’s of energy.

30 cubic yards of landfill space.

The Recycling Coalition of Utah

  • On average, plastic in landfills take more than 450 years to degrade fully. Over time, plastic litter breaks down into microplastic that circulate our drinking water and oceans.  UNESCO estimates at least 8 million metric tons of plastic enters the oceans each year. Most animals (including humans) contain trace amounts of plastic. This plastic debris causes the deaths of more than a million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals annually.
  • The U.S. National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration classifies microplastics as less than 5mm in diameter. The cellulose acetate tow fibers are thinner than sewing thread with diameters less than 0.2 millimeters. A single filter can contain 12,000 fibers. While there are global efforts to remove microbeads from the market, synthetic fibers are lagging. Hundred of millions of cigarette filters are degrading into our oceans as we speak. Something needs to change.

What you can do?

  • Dispose of your waste in the proper way, whether it be a cigarette in an ash tray, disposables in a trashcan, or plastic, aluminum, paper, and glass in recycling.
  • Next time you hit the beach, bring an extra bag to the beach for your waste, and leave the beach cleaner than you found it. If you cannot find a bottle, I can almost guarantee there is a butt in the sand.
  • Join a clean up! the Ocean Conservancy clean up in 2016 was a huge success:


Thank you for being a consciencious and beautiful human being. For a comprehensive read about the overall environmental and health impacts of tobacco cultivation, transport, consumption, and disposal visit this report by the World Health Organization.

As always stay lovely and keep those butts off our beaches!!





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