Cigarette butt littering has an environmental, economic and social impact on the community. Of these, the most pronounced is the impact that butts have on our environment.
Probably the greatest myth surrounding cigarette butt littering is that because butts are so small, they are relatively harmless.
Coupled with the idea that filters are made of cotton and decompose easily, butts are rarely seen as what they really are – a serious environmental hazard.
The composition of cigarette butts is largely misunderstood. Each butt contains remnants of tobacco and paper, as well as the filter. Filters may look like cotton, but they are actually made of plastic filaments. These are made from a type of plastic called cellulose acetate, which degrades very slowly – anywhere between 2 months and 15 years, depending on exposure to air and water.
Cigarette filters are specifically designed to accumulate particulate smoke components, including toxic chemicals such as cadmium, lead, arsenic and zinc. Littered butts leach these chemicals as they decompose, contributing to soil and water pollution and impacting on wildlife habitat.
It is estimated that around one in ten cigarette butts ends up in our rivers, bays and waterways. Being little and lightweight, they are easily carried into our waterways.
Cigarette filters have been found in the stomachs of fish, birds, whales and other animals who mistake them for food, instead swallowing harmful plastic and toxic chemicals.
The impacts of cigarette littering in a social context are widely varied. For example:
- Littered cigarette butts pose a choking risk to young children. Six to 24 months is a particularly vulnerable age range, during which children are actively exploring their environment and are at increased risk of ingesting toxic substances.
- Discarded cigarettes and butts are a common cause of fires, both inside the home and in the bush.
- Littered butts create visual pollution. They affect a community's pride in their town, city or region and reflect badly upon business premises, places of work and social venues.
- Litter is magnetic: the presence of littered butts tends to encourage others to litter their own.
- The presence of litter can lead to an increase in other social problems, such as graffiti and stealing. Places that already look unloved and uncared for tend to become more so, rather than less.
- Litter can also reduce the use of public places like parks and beaches. Nobody wants to spend their time surrounded by rubbish of any sort, including cigarette butts.
The management of cigarette butt litter contributes in large part to the tens of millions of dollars in litter management costs incurred annually by councils around Australia.
It is becoming increasingly expensive to install and service bins and butt bins; clean streets, parks beaches and drains; conduct litter prevention campaigns; issue and enforce litter fines and maintain other compliance activities.
While local governments bear the main costs, significant costs are also incurred by many other stakeholders, including business owners, property managers, land and facility managers and public transport operators.