Plastic cigarette butts – the hidden polluter
Naveera Perera
24 September 2019

How many cigarettes do you see on a daily basis? Whether it’s in the park, the beach, or on the road, the butt of a cigarette is one of the most common items that you see anywhere in the country. I’m sure many are already aware that cigarettes are bad for one’s health. But how many actually know the butt of it is made of plastic and takes up a minimum of 15 years to disintegrate? Some of you might find it hard to believe this, considering the look and feel of it, may not be the typical plastic you’ve seen or felt used in the textile industry for instance, or some plastic bottle you found in the grocery store. So when I say that it is made of plastic what I mean is that the butt is made of a non biodegradable cellulose acetate from polishing sheets of plastic. In other words, the butt is made of many thin layers of plastic that are wrapped around many times.

If any one has either been to the beach or been involved in a beach cleanup, you might already know that out of the plastic pollutants found in the ocean, the cigarette butt is high on the list. To be more specific, according to the Ocean Conservancy’s 33rd annual International Coastal Cleanup day in 2017, it’s the first and foremost plastic item predominantly found in the ocean and inside fish upto date. Almost 4.5 trillion butts are discarded annually causing a drastic environmental impact, which decreases the quality of urban life.

Source: Ocean Conservancy’s 33rd annual International Coastal Cleanup


While plastic pollution in the ocean is a major issue in the world today, Sri Lanka happens to be a top contributor since 2010. And considering the cigarette butt is the most polluted item, it is time we consider the future of its production.

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Although, we’ve been educated and advised on the repercussions of smoking, which includes lung cancer,and although we’ve printed this warning on each pack, sadly, this hasn’t been convincing enough for a majority of people to stop the practice. But with the existing global warming crisis we are now forced to look into methods of saving the environment. Hence, with another major point being added to the list of ‘why smoking should be banned’, we may actually be able to put a stop to it now. To do this however, you should first look into why people tend to smoke and what I’ve realized through research, interviews and surveys is that many of them started at a very young age when they didn’t really take any warning into consideration and eventually got addicted to it or found it to be pointless as they got older. In order to understand this, I passed around an online questionnaire among 123 people aged between 16 to 52. While the majority who answered were those aged between 18-23, the older crowd considered smoking to be ‘useless’. So it became clear that this problem started during one’s teenage years. However, although unsurprisingly everyone was already aware that smoking is bad for one’s health, shockingly only 30.9% were aware that the butt is made of plastic.

More than half the people interviewed didn’t know that cigarette butts were made of plastic.

One of the questions asked in the survey was their views on smoking, and some answers, such as the ones mentioned below, dealt with the environmental impacts of the practice.

“They contain chemicals that contaminate our waterways and ground soil and harm our wildlife. Discarded lit cigarettes can cause fires, which can damage homes and land.”
– Anonymous

“It not only harms one’s self but the others around them in terms of the smoke and the environment as well as in terms of the cigarette butt. I wonder why people would want to damage their health if they wish to live longer. Lets face the truth…. people who don’t care about their own health are not going to care about the environment.”
– Abudul Quadir

Another important factor to consider is how perceptions of smoking are shaped by the media, mainly television and movies. For instance, if you take the tv series Peaky Blinders and Narcos, almost every single episode contains excessive smoking, which makes the younger crowd that watches it feel it’s just something “cool” to do. And if you really think about it, they never show a proper way of disposal either, other than placing the cigarette in an ashtray or just throwing it on the ground and trampling it. Movies and TV series in particular are one method of influencing the younger generation and these shows not only indirectly promote the act of smoking, but also do not portray the importance of disposing cigarette butts in a proper manner.
Moving on to the last question of the survey: Are there any alternatives to smoking?, here are some answers which stood out:

“Seek consent before smoking in front of people and ask cigarette companies to come up with an alternative butt made of a different component”
– Ayindhie Alles

“Quotas, tariffs on production. Since it’s not likely to be possible to stop production indefinitely, considering its one of the major government revenue streams (because of the taxes).”
– Anonymous

“Banning cigarettes won’t be a solution because there are so many of us who are addicted to it. The only possible course of action I see is educating youngsters about the impact it has on the environment and one’s health.”
– Neelan Ganeshathas

“Ban it completely. If that’s impossible or not a viable solution, stringent laws and regulations should be brought in to ensure cigarettes are produced using environmentally friendly resources because the truth is smokers are never going to stop smoking.”
– Abdul Qadir

It is clear through many of the above statements, that most individuals believe that more stringent regulations should be applied on the production and sale of cigarettes. So far in Sri Lanka however, this has been a struggle because of the defense used by cigarette companies, which is the amount of revenue it contributes to the government sector. As that is the case, one may doubt whether such a product will ever be banned, in fact, out of those who took part in the survey, 77.2% doubt whether the promotion of the impact of cigarette butts on degradable waste will actually stop anyone from using them.

Hence, we must look at this problem from another angle. Instead of banning the product they can maybe innovate a butt which can be disposed of and by doing so there is a high chance of it being a much healthier product as well. Even with us using social media as a forum to educate youngsters on the impact smoking has on the environment and one’s health, without the action taken by the central authority, no one will be driven to make an eco friendly product. Until such a product is made, people will continue to sell the existing option. This is what the operators of two pubs stated when I asked this question. As they did not want to go public with their statements I will refrain from stating their names. But it was clear that neither one of them even knew that the butt was made of plastic and so it never occurred to them to look into the way they are disposed of. Another driving factor for them to keep selling cigarettes is because of the demand and the profit they gain from them. So in such a case what other option do the sellers have?

It’s time the government actually looked into this problem. It not only puts all smokers’ health at risk, but it also puts those around in danger. Additionally, as it is one of the main items that is causing plastic pollution in Sri Lanka and the world today, aquatic animals and plants too are at risk.

If we drew a table categorizing the pros and cons of a cigarette, do tell me, can you really think of a justifiable point that we can list under ‘pro’?

Naveera Perera
24 September 2019
Naveera is currently working as a content writer and a graphic designer whilst also studying to become a lawyer. She hopes to contribute towards making a positive change in Sri Lanka in the future.


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