“It’s time for the tobacco industry to take responsibility for their toxic waste.”

Over 2.4 million cigarette butts were collected from beaches around the world in 2017, topping the list of ocean pollutants and toxicants. This is without counting butts washed into the ocean, or those that ended up in the bellies of marine animals.

Almost half of these butts were collected on U.S. beaches, worrying conservationists of the debilitating effects of cigarettes and their potential to wipe out marine life in a short amount of time.

Bringing People Together to Keep Trash Out of Our Oceans

These halting statistics came from a report by Ocean Conservancy, a non-governmental organization that works to protect the ocean from today’s greatest global challenges. Through its International Coastal Cleanup (ICC) initiative, the organization has been bringing together volunteers from across the world to assemble in their respective countries and clean up their coastlines.

With cigarette butts having topped the list in this year’s ICC report, the organization says that drastic measures must be taken, or the impact on whales, turtles and other beloved ocean wildlife will be too great to contain. Already, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia is dying due to ocean pollution.

The Dangers of Cigarette Butts to Marine Life

Cigarette filters are composed of a non-biodegradable cellulose acetate, made from cutting, forming and polishing sheets of plastic. They contain dangerous chemicals such as arsenic, nicotine and lead, taking them up to 15 years to disintegrate. To smokers, the butts insulate heat and prevent burned fingers, along with adding a layer of protection against lung cancer in comparison to non-filtered cigarettes. However, as “protective” as the butts are for us, they are highly toxic to animals when ingested.

Ocean Conservancy reports that field biologists and wildlife rehabilitators routinely find these butts in the bowels of sick or dead seabirds, turtles, dolphins, fish and other sea animals.

Where does the responsibility belong?

According to Tobacco Control, trillions of cigarettes are manufactured every year, which means trillions of butts are also discarded every year. When inappropriately discarded, these butts fall into drainages, streets, parks, and tons of other places where they will then find their way into waterways and eventually end up in oceans. They are so small and ubiquitous that most people remain blind to them and to the detrimental effects they cause.

Rachel Kippen, Co-chair of Santa Cruz County Tobacco Education Coalition (TEC) observes that many non-smokers are not aware of this threat on marine life, usually because they are uninterested in the effects of cigarettes since they don’t smoke them, including the butts’ effects on the environment. Campaigns against smoking, unfortunately, do nothing to curb the pollution menace as it does nothing for public awareness toward that specific issue.

“Most of us have used a plastic bag or plastic straw. We feel a sense of responsibility for how those products are revised, reused or recycled to be more environmentally friendly,” said Kippen. “However, most of us don’t smoke. In fact, less than 12 percent of California residents smoke. That leaves 88 percent wondering how to make a difference,” she added, while referring to the irony of decreasing smoking rates.

Andrea Solano of Santa Cruz County’s Tobacco Education and Prevention Program (TEPP) supported Kippen’s sentiments, stating: “Obviously we can’t depend on individual smokers to change their behavior. It’s time for the tobacco industry to take responsibility for their toxic waste instead of relying on local governments and volunteers.

“They need to remove or revise plastic filters or start compensating local jurisdictions who currently pay for cleanup.”

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