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Environmental Destruction

Tobacco product waste wreaks havoc on our environment

Published Apr 15, 2022
image of power plant with pipes of cigarettes

Here’s what we all know too well: The manipulative, racist, and greedy tobacco industry is destroying the health of people we love. Their products, when used as intended, kill and cause disease. And the industry’s products not only destroy the health of the people who use them but put us all at risk of toxic exposure to secondhand smoke, which causes thousands of Californian deaths each year.1  

Here’s what the tobacco industry doesn’t want us to know: They are a top global plastic polluter whose production and manufacturing directly contributes to climate change and deforestation.23  And the toxic chemicals in their products officially put them in the category of “toxic waste” and make them nearly impossible to dispose of safely.456789

The tobacco industry produces about 6 trillion cigarettes – each year.10 As a result, cigarette butts are the number one most littered item on Earth.11 Number one here in California too – by far. Each filter is made of 15,000 strands of microplastic fibers.12 Microplastics pollute our food,13 water,14 and air.15 And because they are made of plastic, they can take years to decompose,16 which leaves behind mountains of accumulating toxic microplastics to pollute our environment that could make their way inside of us. Butts also are packed with toxic chemicals, like arsenic and lead, that seep into our environment and threaten our oceans and wildlife as they lay discarded on the ground.17 

The tobacco industry takes zero responsibility for the unchecked amounts of toxic waste dumped into our environment. Their own internal documents show the lies and PR spin they’ve used to cover up their pollution with the hope that we put the blame on their customers for littering and allow them to avoid any environmental regulation.18192021 This lack of accountability is at the expense of $41 million California taxpayer dollars each year.22 

And here’s the kicker: The industry’s new vapes that have caused a youth vaping epidemic – they have all the same environmental problems as cigarette butts – plastic pollution and toxic chemicals leaking into the environment.2324 Plus, because they’re electronic devices, they leave behind electronic waste,25 which is notoriously difficult and costly to dispose of.26 

Bottom line: No one, and no place, is safe from Big Tobacco.

  1. California Environmental Protection Agency. Proposed Identification of Environmental Tobacco Smoke as a Toxic Air Contaminant. Sacramento, CA: California Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment; 2005.
  2. Break Free From Plastic. Branded Vol. III: Demanding corporate accountability for plastic pollution. 2020.
  3. World Health Organization. Tobacco and its environmental impact: an overview. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2017.
  4. Environmental Protection Agency (1980). CFR §261.33 Discarded commercial chemical products, off-specification species, container residues, and spill residues thereof.
  5. Hendlin YH. Alert: Public Health Implications of Electronic Cigarette Waste. Am J Public Health. 2018;108(11):1489-1490. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2018.304699.
  6. Novotny TE, Slaughter E. Tobacco Product Waste: An Environmental Approach to Reduce Tobacco Consumption. Curr Environ Health Rep. 2014;1(3):208-216. Published 2014 May 6. doi:10.1007/s40572-014-0016-x.
  7. Krause MJ, Townsend TG. Hazardous waste status of discarded electronic cigarettes. Waste Manag. 2015;39:57-62. doi:10.1016/j.wasman.2015.02.005.
  8. Hendlin YH. E-cigarettes and a new threat: How to dispose of them [blog]. The Conversation. https://www.universityofcalifornia.edu/news/e-cigarettes-and-new-threat-how-dispose-them. Published October 23, 2018. Accessed July 7, 2020.
  9. Slaughter E, Gersberg RM, Watanabe K, Rudolph J, Stransky C, Novotny TE. Toxicity of cigarette butts, and their chemical components, to marine and freshwater fish [published correction appears in Tob Control. 2011 Nov;20(6):418]. Tob Control. 2011;20 Suppl 1(Suppl_1):i25-i29. doi:10.1136/tc.2010.040170.
  10. Novotny TE, Slaughter E. Tobacco Product Waste: An Environmental Approach to Reduce Tobacco Consumption. Curr Environ Health Rep. 2014;1(3):208-216. Published 2014 May 6. doi:10.1007/s40572-014-0016-x.
  11. Ocean Conservancy, International Coastal Cleanup. We Clean On, 2021 report. Washington, DC: Ocean Conservatory, International Coastal Cleanup; 2021.
  12. Belzagui F, Buscio V, Gutiérrez-Bouzán C, Vilaseca M. Cigarette butts as a microfiber source with a microplastic level of concern. Science of The Total Environment. 2021;762:144165. doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.144165.
  13. Rochman CM, Tahir A, Williams SL, et al. Anthropogenic debris in seafood: Plastic debris and fibers from textiles in fish and bivalves sold for human consumption. Sci Rep. 2015;5:14340. doi:10.1038/srep14340.
  14. Choy CA, Robison BH, Gagne TO et al. The vertical distribution and biological transport of marine microplastics across the epipelagic and mesopelagic water column. Sci Rep. 2019;9:7843. doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-44117-2.
  15. Prata JC. Airborne microplastics: Consequences to human health?. Environ Pollut. 2018;234:115-126. doi:10.1016/j.envpol.2017.11.043.
  16. UC Berkeley, University Health Services. Facts about cigarette butts and smoke. uhs.berkeley.edu. https://uhs.berkeley.edu/tobaccofacts Accessed February 25, 2022.
  17. Novotny TE, Bialous SA, Burt L, et al. The environmental and health impacts of tobacco agriculture, cigarette manufacture and consumption. Bull World Health Organ. 2015;93(12):877-880. doi:10.2471/blt.15.152744.
  18. WHITT DD. BEACH ANTI-LITTER PROGRAM. EXPANSION OF DAYTONA BEACH PROGRAM. RJ Reynolds Records; Master Settlement Agreement. 1991 May 06. https://www.industrydocuments.ucsf.edu/docs/lxfb0082.
  19. LITTER" (A PROPOSAL FOR TI POLICY). RJ Reynolds Records; Master Settlement Agreement. 1979 March 26. https://www.industrydocuments.ucsf.edu/docs/yzdk0016.
  20. Smith EA, McDaniel PA. Covering their Butts: Responses to the Cigarette Litter Problem. Tob Control. 2011;20(2):100. doi:10.1136/TC.2010.036491.
  21. Smith EA, Novotny TE. Whose butt is it? tobacco industry research about smokers and cigarette butt waste. Tob Control. 2011;20 Suppl 1(Suppl_1):i2-i9. doi:10.1136/tc.2010.040105.
  22. Martinez C. No ifs, ands or butts: California bill would ban single-use smoking products like cigarette filters. Los Angeles Times. https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-01-25/california-bill-would-ban-single-use-cigarette-filters. Pubished January 25, 2022.
  23. Krause MJ, Townsend TG. Hazardous waste status of discarded electronic cigarettes. Waste Manag. 2015;39:57-62. doi:10.1016/j.wasman.2015.02.005.
  24. Environmental Protection Agency (1980). CFR §261.33 Discarded commercial chemical products, off-specification species, container residues, and spill residues thereof. https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/CFR-2012-title40-vol27/pdf/CFR-2012-title40-vol27-sec261-33.pdf.
  25. Hendlin YH. E-cigarettes and a new threat: How to dispose of them [blog]. The Conversation. https://www.universityofcalifornia.edu/news/e-cigarettes-and-new-threat-how-dispose-them. Published October 23, 2018. Accessed July 7, 2020.
  26. Seeberger J, Grandhi R, Kim SS, et al. Special Report: E-Waste Management in the United States and Public Health Implications. J Environ Health. 2016;79(3):8-16.

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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.