Tobacco smoking doesn’t just negatively impact one’s health, it also endangers the health of the environment, and long after that last puff is taken. Trillions of cigarette butts are carelessly discarded every year, secreting nicotine and heavy metals before breaking down into microplastics that pollute the earth’s soil, rivers, beaches, and eventually its oceans. As single-use plastics, tobacco filters (or ‘stompies’, as they are commonly called in South Africa) make up one of the biggest forms of plastic pollution worldwide.
Due to the paper lining that wraps the filter, people are also often mistaken in thinking that cigarette butts are biodegradable, while they are in fact non-biodegradable sponges, saturated with toxins that leach into the environment and which can cause long-term mortality in marine life such as birds, fish, mammals, and plants.
As part of our ongoing litter surveys on beaches, on one occasion we found almost 3,000 cigarette butts at Pipe Beach in Gqeberha, along just 100m of beach. The cleanup emphasised the importance of increasing awareness around the extent of cigarette pollution in all its forms and why it’s so critical to put a stop to it.