This week’s post is inspired by PickWaste’s most recent clean-up, which took place on Saturday, July 28th. At this clean-up, Sam, Dillon and their volunteers collected 4483 cigarette butts in just one hour! Can you believe this? The fact that there are so many tiny pieces of litter lying around in one space is just mind-blowing to me. Imagine how many pieces would be collected if there was more time or more volunteers? The amount of litter we see today sure says a lot about our behaviour and lack of respect for the planet.
Today we are going to chat about cigarettes, and how the dangerous habit of smoking can affect not only human health but the environment itself.
So, cigarettes. They’re probably one of the most easily identifiable objects in the world. After all, there are currently 1.1 billion smokers in the world; this number is expected to rise to 1.6 billion by 2025.
We see cigarettes covering the ground wherever we go, stuck in the cracks of the sidewalk, tangled in the roots of a tree, sprinkled across a smoker’s driveway. Smoking is not only damaging for our body (damaging our lungs, teeth, throat and causing cancer), but it is also just as toxic to the planet. Just from how many cigarette butts were collected during the clean-up, we can see that there is a lot of waste in the form of cigarettes that is harming our beautiful planet. In fact, cigarettes are accountable for 38 percent of all litter in the United States alone! In 2009, 1,362,741 cigarette butts were collected from waterways in the United States, while the Great Canadian Shoreline Clean-up collected 244,734 butts in 2017. When you add up all of the years that these clean-ups have occurred, that’s millions of cigarette butts picked up, but millions are still lying around on the ground. It is estimated that 4.5 trillion cigarette butts are discarded every single year!
Perhaps you have looked down at a cigarette on the sidewalk and considered the environmental impacts that little piece could cause. Or, maybe you haven’t. In either case, I am going to enlighten you on just how environmentally damaging this pesky human habit can be. The first time I really stopped to think about how bad these chemical-rich pieces of litter can be, I was doing a yard clean-up at my high school in grade twelve. My high school was built in the middle of a forest, so students would hang out in the dense tree covering to smoke, away from the peering eyes of teachers. In these hiding spots, I found so. Many. Cigarettes. Despite being all over the place, we often overlook just how much waste comes from cigarettes. For instance, you walk past a cigarette on the street and don’t think twice about it, but if you see a plastic bag floating around or a newspaper on the sidewalk you are likely more inclined to scoop those items up and throw them away. Additionally, you can see parents telling their young children not to touch cigarettes, because they’ve been in someone else’s mouth before. Totally understandable, but we need to get over the fear of “germs” and clean up. I’ll explain how important it is to do so below.
I have put together a list of ten facts about cigarette waste to educate you on the environmentally and socially damaging effects of smoking. These facts will make you want to go out and pick this toxic litter up, or you will want to share this post with friends or family that smoke to discourage them from the destructive habit.
Without further ado, let’s get on to the ugly truth about one of the world’s most common and dangerous habits:
- Tobacco is farmed through mono-cropping. This means that only tobacco is planted in large fields, every single season, for as long as the field is used for farming. Using the same crop over and over again depletes the land’s soil of essential nutrients required to support the crop and microorganisms in the soil. This makes the soil weaker and more susceptible to erosion. Eventually, the soil will be so depleted and weak that the tobacco crops (let alone any crop) wouldn’t be able to grow on that land, and they would have to destroy another plot of land for the plantation to thrive. The more plots they destroy, the more barren land the tobacco farmers leave in their wake.
- Tobacco is one of the most chemically-demanding crops ever grown. Caring for tobacco requires applying many chemicals, including fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides. Crops that require a lot of artificial chemical applications can pose as a serious risk to their environment. These chemicals can leach into the ground, and chemical runoff from even a brief rainfall can find its way into our freshwater systems. Changing the chemical balance of these sensitive water systems can harm or even kill species living in these systems. It can also cause eutrophication of the water bodies, cutting off oxygen and light so everything in the water body dies. Basically, a tobacco plantation’s intense chemical demand destroys everything living around it.
- Tobacco farming directly contributes to deforestation, especially in our tropical rainforests. We have lost 1.5 billion hectares of forest since the 1970’s to deforestation, much of which can be attributed to tobacco farming. Large sections of trees must be cleared to grow these lettuce-like tobacco plants. In addition, trees are chopped down by the tobacco industry and used for curing tobacco. Curing is done to dry out the tobacco leaves, several methods of which requiring an open flame to do so. Of course, wood is an easy fuel for these fires. Curing is a necessary step in the tobacco production process, so the more we consume tobacco, the more precious trees we chop down. Biodiversity loss, especially for plant species, is common in countries heavily reliant on tobacco farming for their economy. In Brazil, one of the leader tobacco producers, tobacco farming is one of the contributing factors to the loss of native vegetation and species endangerment. Sometimes entire populations are wiped out just to clear land for these plantations.
- Cigarettes take at least several years, if not more, to decompose. Cigarettes are mainly composed of cellulose acetate, a plastic that can break into smaller pieces but cannot decompose. One study tested how long the decomposition process would take, and they found that their tested cigarettes decomposed only 37.8 percent in two years. Depending on the composition and materials the cigarette is made of, just one cigarette can take anywhere from 18 months to 10 years to decompose completely.
Source: The Mining Gazette
- Wildlife that accidentally ingest a cigarette can become fatally poisoned. This study shows how cigarette butts are acutely toxic (poisonous from just a small amount or within a short period of time) to marine life. While humans can regurgitate poisonous materials (a.k.a. vomit the toxins out), many animals do not possess such an ability. Therefore, once they ingest it, that might be the end for them. This doesn’t just come at a risk to wildlife; think about how many pet cats are roaming the streets, or dogs being walked on leashes. You don’t want to imagine what would happen if your beloved pet tries to chew on one of these little packets of poison.
- Cigarettes produce more than 4,000 chemicals when lit, which are very water soluble. This means that if these chemicals find their way into our water systems (streams, rivers, lakes and oceans) we could face serious consequences. The cigarette you pass by on the sidewalk may be swept up the next time it rains, fall down a sewage pipe and get released into our lakes or float into a freshwater stream. These chemicals are created when burning cigarettes, which include carbon monoxide, ammonia, arsenic, formaldehyde, hydrogen cyanide and more, and can immediately impact the freshwater environment due to their acute toxicity.
- Tobacco plantations are known for violating human rights, especially for children. In Zimbabwe, for instance, tobacco farming is an essential component of their economy. However, this agricultural practices has been the root of many human rights violations. These violations include workers being underpaid, overworked, poisoned, harassed, undertrained and poorly protected from on-site dangers. Workers often experience nausea, headaches, dizziness and vomiting, definite signs of acute nicotine poisoning, which is contracted straight through the skin. Children work on the plantations from very young ages, many from ages 11 or 12 but some as young as 7. They work for long hours with little to no shade, no protective gear and few to no breaks. The workers are also exposed to the chemicals used by neighbouring farms, such as dangerous pesticides which waft through the air and drift over to their workplace. At the plantations, pesticides are often spread using backpack sprayers, making it very easy to get the dangerous chemicals on the worker’s skin, in their noses and mouths. Many of these pesticides for tobacco are known neurotoxins, meaning they affect the nervous system and cause it to malfunction. Essentially, the life of a tobacco plantation worker can be very short lived do to the number of dangers they face on the job every single day.
A young girl working at a tobacco plantation. Source: Human Rights Watch
- Property values decrease as cigarette litter increases. An Australian report claims that property values decrease on average by 7 percent because of litter-filled neighbourhoods, much of which comes from cigarette butts. This makes sense, because who wants to live in a dirty neighbourhood where garbage lines the streets? Know a frequent smoker in your neighbourhood that leaves their cigarette butts on their driveway? Their habits may just be harming how much you’ll receive from selling your house.
- Tobacco farming takes up approximately 4.3 million hectares of agricultural land around the world. This is land could have been used for more valuable crops, such as food crops. In addition, an estimated 90 percent of this farming occurs in developing/low-income countries (China, Brazil, Zimbabwe and India being the greatest producers). In areas like these where citizens are desperate for work to feed their families, it’s quite common for these workers to experience the human rights violations that I mentioned previously.
A tobacco plantation. Source: Wiki Commons
- Tobacco production releases greenhouse gases into the air, contributing to global warming. While tobacco curing can be done using wood, many low-income countries have switched to using coal because it is cheaper to burn so much of it. Burning coal produces greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, which stay in our atmosphere and traps more radiation from the sun. I talk more about how greenhouse gases contribute to global warming and climate change in my post recent blog post. For a brief explanation, more gases that trap heat = greater global warming = damaging weather events, biodiversity loss, ozone depletion and more catastrophic effects.
As you can see, cigarettes are not just a problem to our physical health They negatively affect the entire planet, from our polluted water systems, to our degrading atmosphere, to all of the living organisms walking the earth that face extinction today. Who would’ve thought that such a simple, everyday habit would be so destructive?
Thankfully, governments have started acting against cigarette litter and improving the disposal of these toxic items. In Toronto, officials are working to improve waste disposal signage on public waste bins, and have kickstarted a cigarette butt collection project in partnership with a recycling company called Terracycle. This project uses collected cigarette butts to create functional plastic by melting down the collected items; the leftover tobacco and ash can then be composted. Vancouver is looking to develop a cigarette depositing system: for every cigarette in a pack that you purchase, you deposit five cents. Let’s say you have a pack of twelve cigarettes: you will be required to pay a deposit of sixty cents, on top of the price of the pack. Returning the cigarette butts to the store allows you to reclaim your deposit, meanwhile ensuring that the cigarettes are disposed of properly. Across the border, the United States has spent an estimated 11.5 billion dollars on abatement initiatives and clean-ups. Overseas, Thailand has implemented a ban on smoking and littering the cigarette butts on public beaches; those who are caught disobeyed the law can face a hefty fine. Around the world, tobacco control advocates are working with plantations to ensure better treatment of the workers and report any human rights violations. All in all, leaders around the world are working to combat the damaging effects created by this daily habit that over a billion people partake in.
Of course, the most effective way to prevent damage to our is to stop smoking once and for all. It’s easier said than done, which I understand. However, we need to look to the future and decide what sort of place we want the planet to be for our future generations. Do we want a happy, healthy, thriving planet for our grandchildren’s grandchildren, where they don’t have to worry about access to fresh water, clean air or fresh food? Or do we want a smoggy, polluted world filled with wars over resources (we already have those now…), a world where our grandchildren won’t know what a giraffe or elephant or bumble bee are? I think that the answer is clear. To get to the future place that we want, we need to start taking small consistent actions to preserve the planet’s health. This includes picking up litter like cigarette butts, joining in on city-wide cleanups, signing petitions to ban smoking in certain public areas like parks and beaches, or smoking one less cigarette every day. All of these actions, however small they may seem, will add up to make a huge impact. So, what are you waiting for? It’s time to take action.
Until next time!