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The Cigarette Litter Menace: Is It Time To Ban Cigarette Butts?

That’s one of the more extreme answers to solving the problem of the one piece of trash people still feel comfortable throwing on the ground.

The Cigarette Litter Menace: Is It Time To Ban Cigarette Butts?
[Image: Cigarette butts via Shutterstock]

Cigarette butts are no ordinary litter menace. First, there are so many of them; they’re always the most numerous in litter counts. In one audit in San Francisco, “tobacco product wastes” (which includes butts, wrappers and packaging) made up 24.6% of the total litter count.

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Butts also contain several toxins that accumulate after smoking, including chemicals from preparing tobacco, and additives that flavor cigarettes and let them to burn longer. That includes the flavoring ethyl phenol, which is harmful at higher concentrations.

In a new paper in Current Environmental Health Reports, Thomas Novotny and Elli Slaughter of San Diego State University argue that “tobacco product wastes” (TPW) are an under-appreciated problem, and that current strategies like anti-littering laws aren’t addressing it enough.

“TPW mitigation requires novel environmental interventions and new partnerships between tobacco control and environmental groups,” they write. “Many of these interventions would serve to reduce the social acceptability of smoking while reducing the environmental burden of TPW.”

Here are some the options they explore:

Increase public awareness

For example, through “environmental advocacy that emphasizes TPW cleanups, hand-held ashtrays, butt receptacle installations, and other downstream approaches.”

Responsibility for manufacturers

The report recommends “Extended Producer Responsibility” laws for cigarette manufacturers, which might encourage investment in recycling and waste disposal (32 U.S. states have EPR laws for other wastes such as bottles, containers, and carpets).

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Labeling for waste

“These would include specific instructions for the safe disposal of the toxic waste product and brief information about why this disposal is important,” Novotny and Slaughter write.

Cost recovery

The paper estimates cities spend $1 million to $5 million a year clearing up TPW. A fee of $0.20 to $0.40 per pack could recover that money (and further help reduce smoking rates).

Product changes

There’s precedent for forcing manufacturers to change products for litter reasons: “pop-tops” on aluminum cans, for example, no longer proliferate. Perhaps there’s a way of making butts less toxic?

Banning butts

Novotny and Slaughter don’t think butts can be made safe. So, they suggest states “consider banning the sale of filtered cigarettes if these were to be considered an environmental hazard and nuisance burden.”

That’s surely an extreme step. But Novotny and Slaughter are right to make a case for the exceptionality of the butt problem. If banning isn’t the answer, which of the other options might work?

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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