Cigarette Butt Waste

Cigarette butts are the most commonly discarded piece of waste worldwide. It is estimated that 1.69 BILLION pounds of butts wind up as toxic trash each year, creating an enormous environmental, health, and economic burden.

Contrary to popular belief, cigarette butts are NOT biodegradable! Cigarette butt waste is a huge environmental issue, with a global impact -- it is both unsightly and unhealthy.

Smokefree or tobacco-free policies for beaches, parks, and campuses can help dramatically reduce tobacco waste in these areas. Check these lists for example in your area.

Tips for reducing cigarette butt waste:

  • Educate community stakeholders about the impact of tobacco waste on the environment
  • Include pre and post butt clean ups as part of smokefree beach, park, and campus policies, along with clear, positive signage about the policy


Photo by Moran Serr Hirsch.
Click for a larger view.

Cigarette butts are more than mere litter; environmental and health groups are just now appreciating the seriousness of the butt problem, from bio-accumulation of poisons up the food chain to damage to commercial fisheries and water supplies. A recent study showed that cigarette waste easily meets standardized tests for city and state agencies to label a substance as toxic waste. This hazardous material persists in the environment for some time and is often ingested by aquatic creatures, wildlife, and pets, not to mention small children, who suffer serious health problems as a result. Cigarette filters are made from cellulose acetate, a plastic that can break into smaller pieces, but will never biodegrade or disappear. What's worse is that the filters themselves are a sham. They offer no health protection and are simply a marketing device to give the appearance that a cigarette is somehow safer.

Photo of a "Bait Tank" tobacco waste receptacle in Capitola, California,
as part of the city's smokefree beach policy.
To learn more, visit Save Our Shores and Bait Tank.

A study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on small children who had ingested cigarette butts concluded that one-third of them exhibited symptoms of illness such as spontaneous vomiting, nausea, lethargy, gagging, and flushing. Cigarette butts leach toxins into the water and kill or injure various forms of wildlife. In addition, the plastic parts of cigarette butts can be ingested by fish, birds, whales and other marine animals. According to the Surfrider Foundation, cigarette butts are the most frequent item collected during the group's beach cleanups. The good news is that smokefree beach laws help reduce butts on beaches by 45% according to the Audubon Society. Discarded cigarettes are also a major cause of fires.

The cleanup costs are immense - the city of San Francisco has estimated that it spends $11 million per year cleaning up butts. The city has proposed a first of its kind fee on tobacco retailer licenses to help recover the cost of cleanup. We expect more cities and states to label cigarette butts as toxic waste and to pursue policy approaches to address this serious environmental problem. A study published in the April 2011 issue of Tobacco Control, estimated that "tobacco product litter (TPL)" comprises 22 to 36 percent of all visible litter. Estimated removal costs range from $3 million to $16 million for major cities and municipalities.

A May 2009 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health stated, "Several options are available to reduce the environmental impact of cigarette butt waste, including developing biodegradable filters, increasing fines and penalties for littering butts, monetary deposits on filters, increasing availability of butt receptacles, and expanded public education. It may even be possible to ban the sale of filtered cigarettes altogether on the basis of their adverse environmental impact. This option may be attractive in coastal regions where beaches accumulate butt waste and where smoking indoors is increasingly prohibited."

Environmental Impact of Cigarette Butts from TobaccoFreeCA on Vimeo.

Examples of Smokefree Signs for Outdoor Areas
Click on thumbnails to view full-size images

No smoking on esplanade

No smoking in this
commercial zone

No smoking within the park
No fumar dentro del parque

Smell flowers, not smoke

Smoking prohibited
in tot play areas

Read more about cigarette butt waste in the news, as well as research into this toxic environmental problem below.

What Happens to the Billions of Cigarette Butts on the Beach?
How Stuff Works - July 13, 2016

While the reactions of plants and animals to increased metal content can also vary - some will be adversely affected, others will increase their tolerance of the metals - the researchers point out that public awareness of the toxicity of discarded cigare...

Combating Chicago's big beach butt problem
Chicago Tribune - March 21, 2016

Although a smoking ban at Chicago beaches was put in place in 2007, cigarette butts are among the most common items picked up by volunteers helping clean ...

Anti-litter groups: Cigarette butts trash Arizona freeways - February 3, 2016

The cigarettes that are detrimental to your health are also littering Arizona freeways, creating eyesores, leaching chemicals and causing a fire hazard. Cigarette butts account for more than 40 percent of the litter tossed on U.S. highways, according to

Foxwoods Recycles Cigarette Butts Lots Of Them
CTNow - May 6, 2015

Smoke is part of the ambience at Connecticut's casinos because some people like to have a few cigarettes while they gamble. How many cigarettes? At least 716,000 in the past six months at Foxwoods Resort Casino. That works out to an average of nearly 4,000 cigarettes, or 198 packs, smoked daily at the casino. The number could be even greater than that, but 716,000 is the estimated number of cigarette filters, or butts, that Foxwoods bagged up from its casino ashtrays and mailed to a specialty recycling business in New Jersey.

Tossed cigarettes new pollution target of Coastal Cleanup Day
Inside Bay Area - September 22, 2014

But tobacco litter is one of the worst pollution problems facing San Francisco Bay today -- and a major focus of Saturday's California Coastal Cleanup Day, the state's largest volunteer event. ...

Cigarette butts the most prevalent form of trash at the Beaches
Florida Times-Union - July 11, 2014

A 2008 Keep America Beautiful Pocket Ashtray study found that 90 percent of cigarette ... California holds the top spot for smoke-free beaches, boasting more than 50 municipalities with smoking bans, while New York, Massachusetts and Minnesota have nearly 30 communities apiece with smoke-free shores. Maine prohibits smoking on beaches in all state parks. According to the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation, the closest community to the First Coast that bans smoking at parks and beaches is landlocked DeKalb County, Georgia, near Atlanta...

Beaches seeing fewer butts after smoking ban
KITV Honolulu - May 28, 2014

Although there's a lack of empirical evidence, Oahu's city-run beaches are mostly cleaner after a law that bans smoking went into effect Jan. 1. "When we first brought this to everyone's attention we did a cleanup at Kakaako and collected 11,500 cigarette butts literally within the space of an hour-and-a-half," said Surfrider Foundation Hawaii Coordinator Stuart Coleman. "So it was just the overwhelming amount of debris that we picked up and since, yeah, it's been greatly reduced."

2 million cigarette butts: Massive ocean clean-up nets 2 million cigarette butts (National) - May 16, 2013

Based on the reports, the most commonly found items of trash are things such as food wrappers, beverage containers and plastic bags. ...

The Ocean Conservancy - May 16, 2013

1) 2,117,931 cigarettes/cigarette filters

Cigarettes and the Environment
American Legacy Foundation - April 22, 2013

Cigarettes Are Toxic Waste Cigarette butts are the number one littered item on US beaches and roadways. They leach chemicals that are poisonous to wildlife and can contaminate water sources. ...

Local groups work together to raise health awareness on Earth Day
Sault Ste. Marie Evening News - April 21, 2013

Chippewa County -- On April 22, more than one billion people around the globe will participate in Earth Day 2013 and help Mobilize the Earth. People of all nationalities and backgrounds will voice their appreciation for the planet and demand its protection. Together, Earth Day participants will stand united for a sustainable future and call upon individuals, organizations, and governments to do their part. As part of that effort locally, the Chippewa County Health Department (CCHD) and the Sault Tribe Community Transformation Grant Project, partners of the Chippewa County Tobacco-Free Living Coalition, will continue to highlight the importance of tobacco-free parks and outdoor recreation areas on and around Earth Day to call attention to the harmful effects that tobacco litter has on both the environment and on public health.

A Campaign Fights the Cigarette Butt, a Ubiquitous Pollutant
New York Times – April 8, 2013

LIKE that of the American Lung Association, much of the work of Legacy, a 14-year-old antismoking organization, is aimed at exposing the health risks of cigarettes. Legacy’s Truth campaign, for example, tries to dissuade youths from picking up the habit, while its Ex program helps adults quit. Now Legacy is introducing a public service campaign that attacks cigarettes on another front: as litter. …

Editorial: Cigarette butt bill; crazy but interesting
Waste & Recycling News - January 7, 2013

Michael DenDekker, a New York state assemblyman, thinks so. He has proposed a bottle-bill-style program for smokes. Under his plan, smokers would pay a small deposit, say a penny, on every cigarette. When they haul their butts to a redemption center, they'd get their 1-cent back. …

Banning butts at Burgess
Barnstable Patriot - July 20, 2012

Has the smoking ban worked on the beaches? Yes, said Fred Stepanis, assistant with the conservation division and coordinator for the town's Coastsweep ...

More than Half of Americans Polled Don't Know that Cigarette Butts are the No. 1 Littered Item in the nation - Toxic Tobacco Trash Fails to Biodegrade, Putting Wildlife in Danger and Wreaking Havoc on U.S. Waterways, Parks, Beaches and Roadways
American Legacy Foundation, 2012-04-18

Last year, according to 2011 The Tax Burden on Tobacco report, Americans purchased more than 287 billion cigarettes. A vast number of those cigarette butts, including the filters, will be flicked into the environment, landing along waterways, parks, beaches and public roads.

Cigarette butts slide down list of most common Jersey Shore trash
The Star-Ledger - - April 11, 2012

Whether credit goes to the smoking ban on many beaches, the drop in the number of people lighting up or an abundance of receptacles, there's a lot less ...

REGION: Volunteers haul 5 tons of trash from local beaches in 2011
North County Times - January 17, 2012

… In 2006, 2007 and 2008, all coastal cities in the county passed no-smoking ordinances for their beaches. But the cleanup groups say the ordinances have done nothing to stem the amount of cigarette butts that volunteers are noting in their tallies. Cigarette butts were the No. 1 item picked up during 2011 cleanup efforts. ...

Boren hopes to make OU smoke-free by spring 2012 semester Oklahoma Daily, September 13, 2011

... Boren said the financial impact of smoking on campus at a time when state appropriations are decreasing was made clear in an email sent by university Landscape Director Allen King.

“Cigarette cleanup and litter control cost the Landscape Departments budget $165,000 last year; $45,000 of that total was directly related to the cleanup of discarded cigarettes and emptying ashtrays,” King said in the email.

In addition to cleanup charges, Facilities Management must spend money repairing the damage done to university property, King said.

“Currently there are 900 trash receptacles on campus and of that number approximately 100 need to be cleaned each year due to smoking for a cost of $12,000,” King said. “Also benches are being used to extinguish cigarettes. The average cost to clean a bench is three man hours or $90 per bench.” ...

17,000 pounds of debris removed from Santa Cruz, Monterey counties during annual coastal cleanup
San Jose (CA) Mercury-News, 2011-10-05, Jessica M. Pasko

Save Our Shores, which organized the cleanups, released the data totals from the event this week. A total of 4,584 volunteers in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties removed 17,503 pounds of rubbish from 81 sites around the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary area in three hours. ...

Surfrider event to help clean up Tijuana River Valley
KFMB-TV CBS 8 (San Diego, CA), 2011-08-13

Volunteers with the San Diego chapter of The Surfrider Foundation will help clean up the Tijuana River Valley Saturday and raise awareness about problems caused by cigarette butts. ...

Smokers Targeted in Anti-Litter Campaign
San Diego (CA) Reader, 2011-08-14
Gail Powell

The corner of Mission Boulevard and Mission Bay Drive in Mission Beach came alive on the morning of Saturday, August 13 with a dozen or so Surfrider volunteers who urged everyone to "Hold On To Your Butt!" ...

Reynolds American Deceives Consumers by Marketing American Spirit Cigarettes As "Eco Friendly"
Statement of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights, and Legacy

July 25, 2011

WASHINGTON, DC (July 25, 2011) — The Reynolds American tobacco company is once again deceiving consumers by running magazine ads that describe its Natural American Spirit cigarettes as "eco friendly." This is yet another attempt by a tobacco company to downplay how deadly and addictive cigarettes truly are, this time by marketing a cigarette brand as environmentally friendly. Consumers should not be deceived: There is nothing healthy or environmentally responsible about Natural American Spirit cigarettes or any cigarettes.

Humboldt County launches cigarette butt cleanup campaign
Times-Standard - July 1, 2011

Humboldt County, Tobacco Free Humboldt, the city of Eureka and other organizations are joining forces to clean up Eureka -- specifically to get the butts off the grounds. In the past month, Tobacco Free Humboldt and volunteers have collected more than ...

LETTER: Outdoor Smoking Bans
New York Times, 2011-05-14
MATTHEW KING Communications Director Heal the Bay Santa Monica, Calif

You can debate whether outdoor smoking bans improve public health. But there's no doubt that they improve the health of American shorelines.

Careless people are turning our oceans into giant trash dumps. Beaches in the United States are pockmarked with the detritus of our throwaway culture — bottle caps, foam coffee cups and plastic bags. Cigarette butts have been the most frequent item of marine debris collected by millions of beach cleanup volunteers worldwide over the last 25 years, according to a report by the Ocean Conservancy. ...

Discarded Cigarette Butts Harmful To Marine And Freshwater Fish
Medical News TODAY(UK), 2011-04-18
Source British Medical Journal

Discarded cigarette butts, which end up in waterways, are harmful to fish, indicates research published today in a special supplement of Tobacco Control. ...

Study Shows Environmental Impact of Smoking, 2011-04-19
Susan Ray

A new survey comes as a reminder that smoking isn't only bad for our health, but for our environment too.

Butt really? The environmental impact of cigarettes
Volume 20, Issue Suppl 1 Tob Control 2011;20:i1 doi:10.1136/tc.2011.043729
Tobacco Control, 2011-04-19
Author: * Cheryl G Healton1, * K Michael Cummings2, * Richard J O'Connor2, * Thomas E Novotny3

In this issue, Moerman and Potts demonstrate the presence of heavy metals in cigarette butt leachates—the toxic soup produced when butts are soaked in water; Slaughter shows that only one cigarette butt will kill half the fish exposed to leachates in a controlled laboratory setting; Harris describes the history of how tobacco companies used filters as a marketing tool in an effort to allay fears about the harm caused by cigarettes, even after the companies knew that filters did not reduce risk. Smith and Novotny reveal the tobacco industry's long-standing concern about the cigarette butt problem and how it has responded by shifting responsibility for the job of cleanup back to its victims. ...

Students remove more than 5,000 cigarette butts from Jackson Park
Hendersonville (NC) Times-News, 2011-04-03
Jessica Goodman Times-News Staff Writer

About 30 students from three local high schools collected 5,000 to 6,000 cigarette butts on Saturday as they walked through Jackson Park.

Cigarette butts: tiny trash that piles up
Kaufman, L.
New York Times, May 29, 2009.

This "New York Times" article described some smokers' perception that cigarette butts are biodegradable and are safe to discard on beaches and sidewalks. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom indicated in 2009 that he would seek a 33 cent a pack tax to pay for the $11 million the city pays a year to clean up cigarette litter. It is believed that cigarette butts account for a quarter of the items tossed into streets and roadways. Tobacco manufacturers have indicated that they have worked on developing a biodegradable cigarette, but with no success. The Cigarette Litter Prevention Program, created by the nonprofit group Keep America Beautiful, which is financed by Philip Morris, found that butts make up 28 to 33 percent of all litter by piece. The Ocean Conservancy, which also receives money from Philip Morris, has found that butts account for 28 percent of littered items washing up on beaches worldwide. Researcher Thomas Novotny reported that there is enough poison in a discarded butt to kill half the minnows in a liter of water in 96 hours.

News | Related Research
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