Can you guess what Canada’s most common polluter is?

cigarette butts in the sand Photo by Maryshot/Shutterstock

Nothing spoils a good beach day like finding a cigarette butt in the sand. But the likelihood of one creeping onto your towel or into your flip-flop is quite high: Cigarette butts are the most common form of trash found on Canada’s beaches, according to Ocean Wise

Last year, during Lake Huron Coastal Centre’s 14 beach cleanups, volunteers picked up more than 8,000 cigarette butts off the beach.

“It’s a big issue, and we’re seeing it all the time,” says Alyssa Bourassa, interim executive director at the Lake Huron Coastal Centre. “It’s a tedious thing to try to get out of our environment because they’re just so small.” 

This comes as no surprise for Lisa Erdle, director of science and innovation at The 5 Gyres Institute, a non-profit organization focused on reducing plastics pollution. 

“In cleanups across the Great Lakes, cigarette butts are often the most common type of litter,” Erdle says. “We also see this in shoreline cleanups around the world.” 

While more than 164,000 cigarette butts were found on Canada’s freshwater and marine shorelines in 2022, cigarette litter is a global problem. Worldwide, 4.5 trillion cigarette butts are thrown into the environment annually. The United Nations describes cigarettes as “the most discarded waste item worldwide.” 

Did you know cigarette butts contain plastic?

Cigarette butts are also a sneaky form of plastic pollution. Though the white butts may look like cotton or paper, the filters in cigarettes are made of plastic. 

“This is sometimes overlooked,” says Erdle. “The filters contain plastic, often cellulose acetate—a type of bioplastic.” In fact, 98 per cent of cigarette filters are made of plastic fibres, which can take more than a decade to decompose naturally. 

There are other environmental concerns. “When cigarette butts break down on beaches, those chemicals can leach into the environment—compromising the health of the surrounding soil and water,” Bourassa says. “And those little pieces of plastic—the filters—they don’t go away, especially in hot dry environments, which beaches are.” 

Experts say part of the pollution problem is perception. In a 2020 study, only 43 per cent of teens knew that cigarette filters were made from plastic. “If cigarettes are perceived as not plastic and not causing harm, it’s a behaviour that’s likely to persist,” Erdle says. 

There’s also a monetary cost to all this litter. A 2023 study in the journal Tobacco Control estimated that plastic pollution from cigarette butts likely costs US$26 billion each year in marine ecosystem damage and waste management costs. Over the next 10 years, this number is expected to run around US$186 billion. 

On the bright side, there are ways to curb cigarette trash. “Public awareness can go a long way,” says Erdle. Recent research from the Rochman Lab and the Trash Team at the University of Toronto found that a public awareness campaign reduced the number of cigarette butts captured in storm drains. 

For example, educational flyers that explain cigarettes are made of plastics can help people understand that when they absentmindedly chuck a cigarette, they’re contributing to a stubborn plastic pollution problem. 

At the Lake Huron Coastal Centre, Bourassa says that the education piece is important. “We try to communicate to the public through our work that you should think of [cigarettes] just like the other plastic items you might not want to throw away.” 

Erdle says much the same. “Many wouldn’t intentionally litter a plastic wrapper or a plastic bag, but they flick cigarette butts without thinking it’s the same thing,” Erdle says.

“I’d like to see the behaviour of flicking a butt on the ground or out of a window to be as socially unacceptable as throwing a plastic cup or a straw into the environment.” 

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