Earth Day: Cigarette butts – big pollution

22 April 2017:

Happy Earth Day 2017! To mark this year’s celebration, the Earth Day Network says, “We need to empower everyone with the knowledge to inspire action in defence of environmental protection.”

Transnational tobacco companies are among big polluters in the world. About 5.6 trillion cigarettes release hazardous smoke every day, every year and those trillions of butts are simply tossed into the environment.

Cigarette filters are made from cellulose acetate, a plastic that can break into smaller pieces, but will never biodegrade or disappear. According to San Diego State University researchersNovotony and Slaughter, “Plastic cigarette filters are practically non-biodegradable and can leach chemicals for up to ten years.”

International Business Times reports tobacco waste products contain the same toxins, nicotine, pesticides and carcinogens found in cigarettes and cigars, and can contaminate the environment and water sources. The chemicals found in cigarettes, such as arsenic, nicotine, lead and ethyl phenol, could leach into salt and fresh water and be acutely toxic to aquatic micro-organisms and fish.

While Big Tobacco mouths rhetorical concern for the environment, they ignore the obvious pollution their cigarette butts cause, leaving governments and people to pick-up after them.

Discarded cigarette butts and packs are among the most common litter in any clean up by citizens groups. One study in the US estimated that cigarette litter comprises 22 to 36 percent of all visible litter. Estimated removal costs range from $3 million to $16 million for major cities and municipalities.

Big Tobacco likes to beat the drum about their efforts on addressing environmental pollution, but these efforts don’t match the pollution caused by non-biodegradable cigarette butts. While Philip Morris International boasts of being a global leader for its corporate action on climate change, but its butts problem remain. 

Japan Tobacco International (JTI) admits “Our factories produce millions of cigarettes every day and are our primary sources of waste.” However the rhetoric stops there as JTI says nothing about solving the non-biodegradable filter pollution.

BAT Malaysia’s publicity about “high standards of environmental protection” quickly falls short when it comes to reality on the ground. BAT claims, “Our filter tips are biodegradable over a period of between a month and three years, depending on environmental conditions.” However it admits, “… at present we know of no practical way of making consumer-acceptable filters that would degrade so quickly that they would not cause short-term littering problems.”

Tobacco companies have been allowed to get away with the pollution their non-biodegradable filters cause year after year. What is the damage caused to the environment in monetary terms? Tobacco companies should be held accountable.  For this Earth Day, citizens should ask the tobacco companies to pay the cost to the damage they cause to the environment.  

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