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Environmental Destruction

The tobacco industry is a top global plastic polluter

Published May 16, 2023
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Cigarette butts are made of microplastics

You probably see one of the most common sources of microplastics everyday – on the ground, in parking lots, in gutters, or at the beach – cigarette butts.1 Discarded cigarettes contain filters made of plastic, which can break down into microplastics that then contaminate our soil and water sources and harm our health.2 In fact, each cigarette filter contains at least 15,000 strands of microplastic fibers.3

Cigarette butts are a major source of plastic pollution that endanger marine life and may harm humans.4 Each year, cigarette butts are the most discarded item in the United States, which makes sense – Big Tobacco makes 6 trillion cigarettes each year, making them a top global plastic polluter.567

What exactly are microplastics, and why should we care?

Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic measuring less than five millimeters long, about the size of a sesame seed or smaller.8 Though often invisible to the human eye, microplastics are nearly everywhere – polluting the food we eat, the water we drink, and even the air we breathe.910 Most microplastics take a long time to degrade in the environment, which means that when they enter our environment, they may eventually get eaten by marine life or other animals, which over time may go on to harm entire ecosystems.1112

Due to their tiny size, microplastics are challenging to remove from our food and water sources.13 Microplastics have been found in sea water, tap water, and urban water runoff.14157 It may come as a surprise that Americans ingest an estimated hundreds of thousands of microplastic particles a year.16 According to recent studies, microplastics have been found in human lungs, breast milk, and blood; they’ve been linked to fertility issues, oxidative stress, and inflammation in humans.1718192021222324

There’s no denying that tobacco product waste produces massive plastic pollution causing irreparable damage to our environment, our food supply, and potentially our bodies.


Written by Scott Coffin, Research Scientist
California State Water Resources Control Board

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Hold the industry accountable

California has already protected people from other harmful products, and it's time to hold the tobacco industry to the same standards.