The Most Commonly Littered Item? Cigarette Butts — And They’re Plastic

More cigarettes are littered than plastic bags, straws, bottles, wrappers or takeout packaging. They’re the most common type of litter on the planet. Why? Because many people find it socially acceptable to throw cigarette butts on the ground.

The Ocean Conservancy has been facilitating beach clean-ups since 1986. In the past 30+ years, they have collected over 60 million cigarette filters, making them the most common piece of ocean litter. In 2017 alone, cleanup volunteers collected 2.4 million butts.

It’s estimated that 5.6 trillion cigarettes are consumed each year, and as many as two-thirds of the filters are littered.

No matter how you want to count it, that’s a pretty big problem. And what makes it even worse is that they’re made from plastic. For a long time, people have believed that cigarette filters are made of paper and that they biodegrade naturally, but that isn’t true.

According to NBC News, 90% of cigarettes contain a plastic-based filter. Plastic pollution is dangerous because of how it breaks down — or rather, how it doesn’t break down. Plastic doesn’t biodegrade, it photodegrades. So it breaks down into smaller pieces with the help of heat and sunlight, but it never stops existing as plastic. Unlike other organic materials that can be eaten and digested and recomposed, plastic just stays plastic.

When cigarette filters break down and are eaten by wildlife, the plastic fibers accumulate in the bodies of the animals and work their way up the food chain. Before the filters begin breaking down, they release all the chemicals they absorbed from the cigarette smoke, including nicotine, arsenic and lead.

Many of these cigarette filters end up in the ocean. Some are tossed directly by beachgoers. Others are washed from sidewalks and street corners into gutters, storm drains, local waterways, and they make their way into the ocean from there.

If you smoke, be careful to dispose of your butts in ashtrays and trash cans, so that they don’t end up polluting our environment and endangering wildlife.