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Picking up 52.9 Million Plastic Cigarette Butts off Beaches

Jar of cigarette butts.
Visitors to the NOAA booth at Louisiana Earth Day tried to guess the number of cigarettes butts in the jar (1,523) to qualify to win a T-shirt, donated by the non-profit Legacy. The NOAA exhibit was designed to raise awareness of how toxic cigarette butts can harm the marine environment. (NOAA)

APRIL 26, 2012 -- 52.9 million. That is the disgustingly large number of cigarette butts beach cleanup volunteers have collected over the past 25 years during the International Coastal Cleanup, an annual event sponsored by the Ocean Conservancy. Consistently the number one piece of litter found, cigarette butts represent an astounding 32 percent of total debris items gathered overall at these cleanups. And that's sadly not only the case on beaches but elsewhere too. Most cigarette filters are made of a type of plastic, cellulose acetate, which doesn't biodegrade and can persist in the environment for a long time. Fish, birds, and other animals can mistake small pieces of plastic, like cigarette butts, for food. Eating them could cause cause the animal to choke or starve to death because the plastic isn't digested, filling up their stomachs. Cigarette butts contain toxins (such as heavy metals and the organic compounds nicotine and ethylphenol) and not a lot is known about how those toxins impact the environment, wildlife, and humans. However, studies show they have a negative health impact on fish. For example, according to public health non-profit Legacy®, a recent laboratory test demonstrated that one cigarette butt soaked in a liter of water was lethal to half of the fish exposed to it. In an effort to raise awareness about this common source of pollution, NOAA's Office of Response and Restoration hosted a booth at the Louisiana Earth Day environmental festival in Baton Rouge on April 22, 2012. The festival is one of the largest Earth Day events in the nation, covering several downtown blocks and attracting thousands of people. Even as the occasional smoker strolled by the booth, children crowded in for the chance to win a T-shirt by guessing as close as possible the number of cigarette butts in a large jar (1,523 gathered in only two hours!) and marvel at its grossness. Several of the kids remarked as they looked at the jar how they want their parents to stop smoking. Some of the parents and other grown-up visitors proudly announced how long it had been since they quit. One current smoker announced that his girlfriend was making him dispose of his cigarette butts responsibly, rather than tossing them on the ground. Lots of visitors had never considered the negative impacts cigarettes could cause to the marine environment. But here in this part of the country, next to the Mississippi River and not far from the Gulf of Mexico, most seemed interested in learning about the harmful implications this type of marine debris could cause their environment. The NOAA Marine Debris Program, part of the Office of Response and Restoration, is educating the public on this specific type of pollution, one that almost seems to be the "last form of acceptable litter." While most people would be horrified to see, say, some fast food litter tossed out of the car in front of them, unfortunately few of us would be as shocked to see someone throw a cigarette butt on the street. Learn more about what you can do about this problem.

Boy holding jar of cigarette butts.
A local student, visiting the NOAA booth with his mom, guessed how many cigarettes butts were in the jar in hope of winning a T-shirt at Louisiana Earth Day, April 22, 2012. He came close and got a shirt. (NOAA)
Last updated Tuesday, April 25, 2023 12:24pm PDT