Cigarette Butts Are Toxic Waste

July 23, 2021

Just look around. They’re everywhere. In 2005, an estimated 135 million pounds of cigarette butts were dumped into the U.S. environment.2 Cigarette butts are the most common toxic waste found in cleanups and the number one item found on California highways.3 4 And contrary to popular belief, they do not decompose completely.5

  • The toxic chemicals in cigarette butts are a threat to our aquatic ecosystems1.
  • The substances that leach out are highly toxic to freshwater micro-organisms.1 6 7
  • In 2010, over one million cigarettes were removed from California beaches and inland waterways as part of the annual International Coastal Cleanup.8

Cigarette butts are poisonous when ingested by children or animals. Just one may be lethal.17

Worldwide, it is estimated that 1.69 billion pounds of cigarette butts end up as waste each year. 9 10 A study conducted by the California Department of Transportation found that cigarette butts make up 34 percent of the total waste captured in California.11

The production of cigarettes is very damaging to the environment. It is estimated that one tree is consumed for every 300 cigarettes produced – that’s one tree for every one and a half cartons.12

Smoking poses a direct threat to our forests, homes and parks.12 Discarded cigarette butts have been linked to large wildfires, resulting in the destruction of wildlife, vegetation and property.14 Cigarette-induced fires claim hundreds of lives in California each year, not to mention the millions of dollars in property damage.

California spends $41 million annually on waste clean up.15 Cigarette butts make up 37 percent of the total waste captured in California.16 A 2009 study on the impact of tobacco waste in San Francisco streets found that tobacco waste accounted for 25 percent of all litter. It was estimated that cigarette butt waste clean up costs San Francisco approximately $7.4 million annually.17 Soon after the results were released, San Francisco enacted a cigarette clean up fee which is used to cleanup butts from streets, tourist venues and storm drains.

The infographic below helps explain how toxic cigarette butts are:

References renameme

  1. Slaughter, E., Gersberg, R., Watanabe, K., Rudolph, J., Novotny, T.E., "Toxicity of Cigarette Butts, and their Chemical Components to Marine and Freshwater Fish, Atherinops affinis and Pimephales promelas,"
  2. Clean Virginia Waterways. How many discarded cigarette butts are there?
  3. California Department of Transportation, "Please Don't Tarnish the Golden State!" Litter Generation Study.
  4. Beck RW. Final Report: Litter: A Review of Litter Studies, Attitude Surveys and Other Litter-related Literature. Keep America Beautiful, Inc., 2007.
  5. Ach A. "Biodegradable Plastics Based on Cellulose Acetate," Journal of Macromolecular Science Part A. 1993;30(9):733-740.
  6. Register K. "Cigarette Butts as Litter-Toxic as Well as Ugly". Underwater Naturalist, Bulletin of the American Littoral Society, 2000.
  7. Moerman JW, Potts GE. "Analysis of Metals Leached from Smoked Cigarette Litter," In Press, Tobacco Control. 2010.
  8. Ocean Conservatory. Trash Travels: From our hands to the seam around the globe, and through time. 2010 Report.
  9. Carlozo, LR. Cigarettes: "1.7 billion pounds of trash," Chicago Tribune. June 18, 2008.
  10. Novotny, T., Lum, K. Smith, E., Wang, V., & Barnes, R. Cigarette Butts and the Case for the Environment Policy on Hazardous Cigarette Waste. International Journal of Environment Research and Public Health. 2009.
  11. California Department of Transportation. Caltrans Litter Management Pilot Study. August 2001.
  12. Muller, M. Tobacco and the Third World: Tomorrow’s Epidemic? A War on Want Investigation into the Production, Promotion, and Use of Tobacco in the Developing Countries. 1978.
  13. Mackay, J., Eriksen, M., Shafey, O. The Tobacco Atlas, 2nd Ed. The American Cancer Society, Atlanta, GA, USA, 2006.
  14. Cannon, S., & DeGraff, J. The Increasing Wildfire and Post-Fire Debris-Flow Threat in Western USA, and Implications for Consequences of Climate Change, Landslides - Disaster Risk Reduction. 2008.
  15. Health Economics Consulting Group, LLC. Estimates of the Costs of Tobacco Litter in San Francisco and Calculations of Maximum Permissible Per-Pack Fees. June 22, 2009.
  16. California Coastal Commission. California Coastal Cleanup Day History.
  17. Quirk JT. "Cigarette-related injuries to young children in the USA, 2002-2007," Public Health. Sep 2009;123(9):628-629.