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Pick Up Some Butts!

November 20, 2018 2 min read

Pick Up Some Butts!

Lauren Carlstrom, O+ Team Member | 

A bus stop billboard caught my eye the other day. It was an advertisement for screening/tests for people who had successfully quit smoking cigarettes. The image of a woman, standing on an impressive mountain of cigarette butts, spoke volumes: Every little cigarette adds up. In fact, in a world where ten million cigarettes are purchased a minute, the number of toxic-filled cigarettes smoked – and discarded – each year is in the trillions, and the number of cigarette butts trashed annually (~5 trillion) weighs ~2 billion pounds.

Surveying the streets beneath my boots – speckled by culturally-accepted, semi- innocuous cigarette butts – I now wondered how much, and in what ways, those cigarette butts, and the smoke they emit, contribute to our larger air quality and pollution problem?

The American Lung Association’s LUNG FORCE initiative partnered with the Ad Council to launch a national public service advertising (PSA) campaign to educate Americans about a groundbreaking lung cancer screening for those at high risk.

I quickly discovered that I wasn’t the first to ask. On the same day I begin drafting this article, a Google query revealed that “Shocking Global Cigarette Litter Facts” had just been published.

I wasn’t surprised to learn that cigarette butts are, and have been for years, the most littered item in the United States and the world. But (no pun intended), I was alarmed that 77% of people surveyed didn’t think their butts counted as “litter” (Martin).

I mused further, apart from visual clutter on the streets, are discarded cigarette butts (filters) a problem for Planet Earth? The answer is yes, because of what they’re made of and why they linger. The filters are made of cellulose acetate, which takes 18 months to ten years to decompose (Martin). Further, those forgotten filters may contain tobacco, nicotine, tar, paper, rayon, calcium carbonate and other toxins that can be hazardous to our environment, entering waterways, for example, through storm drains filters and threaten wildlife (Martin).

In addition to more subtle harm, cigarette butts also cause raging forest fires and other devastating fires. Wildfires, of which “90% are the result of preventable human activity,” easily sparks from cigarette butts, as well as campfires (Air Visual). “According to the National Fire Protection Agency, smoking materials like cigarettes, pipes, and cigars, cause around 90,000 fires every year in the United States and are the number one cause of fire-related deaths” (Martin). Along with the devastation to people and wildlife, as we’ve sadly witnessed in recent weeks, fire produces debilitating toxic air (particulate matter). Plumes of thick smoke can saturate the air with pieces of ash and PM10 and PM2.5 particles, causing a high risk for severe throat and eye irritations (Air Visual).

As we consider our shared air and our common ground, perhaps this extra heat about how cigarettes affect us will get you or someone you know to stop smoking. One way or another, we need everyone’s breath to make our world a healthier place to live and breathe.



Martin, Terry. Shocking Global Cigarette Litter Facts. https://www.verywellmind.com/world-cigarette-litter-facts-that-will-shock-you-2824735. Retrieved November 4, 2018.

Air Visual. Wildfires: 10 tips to breathe clean air. https://www.airvisual.com/air-pollution-information/blog/wildfires-10-tips-to-breathe-clean-air. Retrieved November 4, 2018.

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