Cigarette butt pollution costs governments worldwide $26 billion (24 billion euros) to manage, a new study published in Tobacco Control journal has estimated. The figure, adjusted for inflation, amounts to $186 billion every decade spent on cigarette butt waste management and damage to marine ecosystems.
Cigarette butts are single-use plastics
Lead researcher Deborah Sy, of the Global Center for Good Governance in Tobacco Control, Bangkok, notes that governments around the world are attempting to tackle plastic pollution, especially single-use plastics. Cigarette butts, however, are frequently overlooked. This despite their filters – as well as commercial cigarette packaging – being made of single-use plastic. And despite them holding the dubious honour of being the most common form of litter on the planet.
A cigarette filter weighs 3.4g on average. Add on the packaging for a pack of 20 cigarettes and that makes 22.4g of plastic waste. Knowing that, the research team looked at publicly available data sources for cigarette sales, spending on cigarette waste management, and plastic waste on land and sea, including from the OECD and the World Bank. They used tonnage figures to calculate annual and 10-year cost estimates.
Marine system damage
Shockingly perhaps, the majority of the study’s annual total clean up cost estimate of $26 billion comes in the form of harm to marine ecosystems – a whopping 20.7 billion dollars’ worth.
“Although this amount is small compared with the annual economic losses from tobacco (US$1.4 trillion per year) and may appear insignificant compared with the 8 million deaths attributable to tobacco each year, these environmental costs should not be downplayed as these are accumulating and are preventable,” the research team noted.
Exacerbating the matter, the worst cigarette litter happens in low and middle-income countries, such as Bangladesh, Indonesia, and the Philippines, where the rate at which pollution leakage (including plastics) into the environment is up to 14% higher than higher income nations. That’s important because toxic metals and chemicals in cigarette butts build up over time, making them more of a pollution time bomb than general plastic waste.
As if the picture couldn’t get any worse, the researchers’ figures might even be a “conservative” underestimate, they acknowledge. “Cigarette filters have been polluting our oceans and land for at least five decades, and these trash items may have a carrier effect with the toxic chemicals leached from them. Human and ecosystem impacts of this toxic chemical accumulation are unknown,” said Sy.