Opinion: No butts about it -- cigarette waste damages nature


Do you want to help save Chesapeake Bay? Here is my unfiltered advice: quit smoking. Why? Because cigarette butts are toxic to the fish, plankton, and everything else that lives in the Bay. No ifs, ands, or butts about it.

Cigarette butts consist of filters and some remaining tobacco attached to them. Discarded butts are often eaten by wildlife. Butts in the water can be consumed by fish. Birds have been seen trying to feed butts to their chicks. Once eaten, the butts can block their digestive tracts, or slowly release toxic chemicals, killing the animal. If not eaten, they decompose into tiny micro-plastic particles that enter the food chain indirectly. Virtually all seafood contains microplastics, and they are now in our bodies too.

The biggest part of the butt problem is the filter itself. Cigarette filters are composed of cellulose acetate, a type of plastic that takes decades to decompose. And the truth is that there is absolutely no need for them. Single use plastic filters serve no purpose other than marketing – they don’t make cigarettes “healthier” but may make them easier to smoke, thus increasing the risks of addiction and cancer.

But butts don’t have to be eaten to be deadly. Cigarette tobacco contains nicotine which is a natural pesticide, as toxic to small aquatic crustaceans as it is to insects. In addition, cigarettes contain over 7,000 known chemicals including 600 additives that affect taste and smoothness, and even desensitize the throats of smokers to the damage being done. Those chemicals remain in the butts and are released over time.

Scientists have tested the toxicity of cigarette butts on aquatic organisms using a standard dose-response test. Cigarette butts are soaked in water, and then diluted to a range of concentrations from 1/8 to 8 butts per liter. Organisms such as topsmelt (akin to our local bay anchovy) and Daphnia, a freshwater crustacean commonly consumed by fish, are then held in the butt-water for 96 hours. (Why 96 hours? Because scientists don’t like to work on weekends, so they start the test on Monday and end it on Friday.) After 96 hours, the lethal concentration that kills 50% of the organisms (known as the LC50) is determined. For topsmelt, the LC50 was 1 butt per liter, and for Daphnia, it was only 0.05. That is, one cigarette butt in a liter of water would kill half the fish present, and only 1/20th of a butt would kill all the Daphnia.

If smokers would dispose of all their butts in containers, we wouldn’t have this problem. But over 65 percent of cigarette butts are disposed of outdoors. In fact, butts are the No. 1 most common type of litter in the world, and thousands of pounds of butts are discarded daily. Every butt that is thrown out a car window eventually ends up in the water system, decomposing and emitting toxic chemicals and microplastics, if not eaten by wildlife.

So what can we do about this problem? We can tackle it on many levels from local to national. At the local level, we can ban smoking on beaches. Spain has done this on many of their beaches, preventing the discard of many tons of butt-trash. (Here’s looking at you, Ocean City).

At the State level, we can add environmental taxes that increase the cost of cigarettes. This has already been done in some countries. That won’t prevent smokers from buying them, but the revenue can be used to help clean up beach debris or fund anti-smoking campaigns.

At the National level, we can (ask our legislators to) ban the production of cigarette filters, and demand that cigarette companies pay for the costs of cleanup, as France has done. California has tried this, unsuccessfully, but some communities have banned the sale of cigarettes within their limits.

This article is probably not going to convince many smokers to clean up their act. But maybe it will spur activists within our communities to propose some of these ideas. The health of Chesapeake Bay, and our oceans, depends on it. And I’m not just blowing smoke. 

Bradley Stevens of Salisbury is a recently retired Professor of Marine Science from the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. He has written two books -- “King Crabs of the World,” an encyclopedia of all things king crab, and “The Ship, The Saint, and the Sailor” about his discovery of the oldest known shipwreck in Alaska. 

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