Berkeley, CA

Cigarette Butts Are Toxic Waste, Berkeley Experts Say

Thomas Smith
Thomas Smith/Gado Images

Most people today know that smoking is bad for you, and for people around you. But many people probably don’t realize how incredibly bad it is for the environment.

A cigarette butt casually flicked onto the ground might not seem like much. But experts at the University of California Berkeley say these discarded butts actually leach toxic chemicals into the environment and cause all manner of other problems.

Public health expert Dr. Amir Khan agrees. In a tweet, he writes that cigarette butts "contain non-biodegradable plastic, toxic chemicals and can find their way into rivers and oceans poisoning our waterways and wildlife."

As Dr. Khan points out, although cigarette butts look like they’re made of paper, they’re actually not. Under that paper is a filter made from cellulose acetate, a kind of plastic. These plastic filters take at least a decade to break down in the environment. And even if they do break down, they often leach microplastics into the ecosystem.

Like smoke itself, cigarettes also contain all manner of toxic chemicals. These include formaldehyde, nicotine, arsenic, lead, copper, chromium, cadmium, and a variety of polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), according to a recent paper by scientist Thomas Novotny and his team. Formaldehyde is the same chemical used to preserve dead bodies. Yuck!

Sadly, people also tend to discard a lot of these potentially toxic butts. Cigarette butts account for 1/3 of the total waste discarded on American beaches. They also account for 34% of all the road waste collected in the state of California. That state spends over $41 million annually just to remove them from the environment.

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A final problem with cigarette butts is that they’re often discarded while they’re still lit. These little smoldering pieces of toxic plastic can thus start wildfires, including fires that destroy thousands of acres of land and cost firefighters their lives or cost families their homes.

The bottom line is that cigarette butts might look unassuming, but they’re anything but innocent. If you’re a smoker, you should quit. But if you’re going to keep on smoking, at least make sure you’re keeping toxic cigarette butts out of the environment.

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Award-winning entrepreneur, and the co-founder and CEO of Gado Images. Thomas writes, speaks and consults about artificial intelligence, privacy, food, photography, tech, and the San Francisco Bay Area. As a professional photographer, Thomas' photographic work regularly appears in publications worldwide. Pitches/news tips:

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