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Smoking and cigarette butts are among the most common forms of plastic pollution on earth. Cigarettes can cause real, lasting damage not only to your health but also to our ecosystems.
But exactly how does smoking affect the environment?
Most cigarettes aren’t adequately disposed of, causing land and water pollution. In addition, cigarette butts aren’t biodegradable, and they release toxic chemicals and pollute the environment, waterways, and soil for years. Smoking also releases toxic air pollutants into the atmosphere, causing air pollution.
Let’s take a closer look at each point and dive deeper into how smoking affects the environment and what we can do to prevent pollution from cigarettes.
Here’s How Smoking Affects The Environment:
1. Litter and land pollution
Many people throw cigarette butts on the ground. But unfortunately, contrary to common belief, cigarette butts aren’t made of cotton or paper.
They contain plastic called cellulose acetate, containing various chemicals. It can take up to 10 years to completely degrade.
More than six trillion cigarettes are produced annually, with cigarette butts contributing to 766 million kilograms of toxic trash each year.
Once cigarette butts enter the environment, the chemical leftovers seep into our soil, waterways, and air, so everything is affected by cigarette residue.
Cigarette litter gets broken down by sunlight and moisture, which release cadmium, lead, formaldehyde, arsenic, and other toxins into our natural systems.
This litter is ugly, and what’s worse, those toxins end up near people and wildlife.
2. Air pollution
Another downside is that tobacco agriculture creates more air pollution than we think.
Cigarette smoke negatively impacts air quality because tobacco smoke produces fine particulate matter, which is the most dangerous element of air pollution (for health).
Additionally, farming tobacco generates greenhouse gasses through farm machinery, fertilizers, packaging, and processes related to distribution and advertising.
You can see more about the life cycle of tobacco at the end of the article.
3. Water pollution
As mentioned in my recent post, cigarette butts are among the most common plastics in our ocean.
Wildlife consumes that waste, so scientists frequently find cigarette butts inside dead sea birds, turtles, fish, and dolphins.
The harsh cigarette residue that leaks into our water sources also damages the aquatic ecosystem. Many chemicals are fatal to freshwater and marine fish species.
In combination with other pollutants and waste, cigarettes can further contribute to environmental damage by destroying coral reefs in the ocean.
Tobacco, the main ingredient in the manufacture of cigarettes, is mainly planted in rainforests areas.
Tobacco growing and curing are the two direct causes of deforestation. First, forests are cut for the tobacco plantations, and afterward, wood is burned to cure the tobacco leaves.
This results in a reduction in biodiversity, soil erosion, and displacement of animals from their habitats.
It ultimately helps to elevate the increasing global temperatures, leading to a massive imbalance in our planet’s ecosystem.
5. Waste of resources
The global cultivation of tobacco requires substantial energy & fuel consumption, land use, water consumption, pesticides, and labor during the entire production process of cigarettes.
These are all resources that we can put to better use.
Additionally, the production of cigarettes emits CO2 emissions from transporting the leaf to the processing plant and emissions from transporting the processed leaf from manufacturers to shelves.
Make sure to check the life cycle of tobacco at the end of this article (infographic).
6. Plastic packaging waste
An additional environmental issue is using plastic sachets/pouches for tobacco or cigarettes.
This only creates more waste and more environmental problems due to human and ecological damage to plastic waste materials.
Quick (mind-boggling) facts on smoking cigarettes:
- Nearly one-in-four (23%) adults in the world smoke tobacco.
- Daily smoking is most common across Europe and Asia, with more than 20% of adults in these regions smoking a cigarette every day.
- An estimation is that around 8 million people die prematurely every year because of this habit.
- 766,571 metric tons of cigarette butts make their way into the environment every year.
How does smoking affect human health?
Smoking is a massive health crisis around the globe. Millions of people live in poor health due to direct and secondhand smoking. We are particularly vulnerable to these three factors:
- Direct risks to human health: Smoking cigarettes is detrimental to our health, as it can lead to the development of cancer, autoimmune disorders, type 2 diabetes, lung disease, heart attack and stroke, pregnancy complications, and other health issues through the toxins smokers inhale.
- Contamination of food sources: When cigarette litter finds its way into our water systems, it’s likely that it ends up in fish, vegetation, and animals and contaminates them with toxic chemicals.
- Prevalence of forest fires: Discarded burning cigarettes or cigarette lighters often start forest fires, which cause thousands of deaths and millions of dollars in property damage. Forest fires are also bad for the environment because they destroy habitats and cause biodiversity loss.
- Secondhand or passive smoking: When people around you are smoking, and you inhale the smoke, it can put you at high risk of smoking-related diseases, too, and it can cause numerous health problems.
Is quitting smoking doable?
Yes, it’s doable to stop smoking, and many people I know have done so. However, it’s a tough habit to kick. Cigarettes contain nicotine, which triggers the release of feel-good chemicals in your body and changes the way your brain works.
Without nicotine, you end up going into withdrawal. Unfortunately, many people also connect their identity, emotions, and routine with smoking, so cigarettes become a crucial part of their lifestyle.
To quit, you would need to resolve the underlying factors that make you crave the nicotine in the first place.
Are cigarette butts biodegradable?
Cigarette butts are not biodegradable because they contain plastic fibers called cellulose acetate.
Cellulose acetate takes very long to degrade, and it can’t organically break down from living organisms.
Depending on conditions, a typical cigarette butt can take anywhere from 18 months to 10 years to decompose. Unfortunately, during that time, it will persist, pollute, and release toxins into our environment.
How to prevent litter from cigarette butts?
A couple of individual things you can do include:
- Organize a cigarette butt cleanup. Picking up smoking-related litter can increase awareness about the importance of reducing cigarette butt pollution.
- Demand ash receptacles in areas where you often go, and people frequently smoke & need to discard their cigarettes.
- Carry a pocket ashtray (or a tiny jar) with you. Even if you are not a smoker, you might have friends who smoke and having something others can use to dispose of their cigarette litter can also increase awareness and reduce pollution.
- Make signs and stickers with information on cigarette pollution. Stick them around and give them to friends.
- Consider giving presentations about the harmful impacts of cigarette litter. Or just learn more about the topic, and start a friendly conversation with smokers that you know.
How do you properly dispose of cigarettes?
Always throw cigarette butts in the garbage and never on the ground. Make sure to put your smoke out before tossing it.
Is throwing a cigarette on the ground littering?
Yes, it is! Throwing cigarette butts on the ground releases plastic, heavy metals, nicotine, and other chemicals into our environment.
Additionally, cigarette buts are the most littered item, and it costs a lot of time, money, and resources to clean up cigarette waste.
Unfortunately, cigarette butt littering still persists, due to the lack of awareness and regulations.
The good news is that the number of people smoking is declining worldwide, but it is still essential to ensure that all cigarette butts are disposed of properly.
More critically, we should educate people on the environmental damaging effect and impact of smoking. By addressing this demand and spreading the information, we can cut down smoking-related emissions for good.
Do you have more ideas on how to prevent litter from cigarette butts? Feel free to share them below in the comments with everyone!