By Scott Coffin, Research Scientist | California State Water Resources Control Board
You may not know that cigarette butts are a major source of plastic pollution that may endanger marine life and harm humans. Each year, cigarette butts top the list of most littered items across California beaches and waterways. In 2017, an astounding 203,474 butts were collected on California beaches as a part of an international coastal clean-up.
You probably see one of the most common sources of microplastics everyday – on the ground, in parking lots, gutters or at the beach – cigarette butts. Discarded cigarettes contain filters made of plastic, which can break down into microplastics that then contaminate our soil and water sources and harm our health. In fact, each cigarette filter contains at least 15,000 strands of microplastic fibers.
So, what exactly are microplastics, and why should we care? Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic measuring less than five millimeters long, about the size of a sesame seed or smaller. Most microplastics take a long time to degrade in the environment, which means that when they enter our environment, they may eventually get mistaken for food by marine life or other animals, which over time may go on to harm entire ecosystems.
Due to their tiny size, microplastics are challenging to remove from our food and water sources. Microplastics have been found in sea water, tap water and urban water runoff. It may come as a surprise that Americans ingest an estimated hundreds of thousands of microplastic particles a year. Toxic microplastics pollute the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe. According to recent studies, microplastics have been found in human lungs, placenta, and blood; they’ve been linked to fertility issues, intestinal damage, and even mutations in DNA.
The tobacco industry remains one of the world’s top plastic polluters. Each year, the tobacco industry produces six trillion cigarettes, and most have plastic filters. It’s estimated that more than 4.5 trillion cigarette butts end up in the environment.
There’s no denying that tobacco product waste produces massive plastic pollution causing irreparable damage to our environment, our food supply, and our bodies. Learn more about the environmental harms of tobacco products at www.undo.org.