Exploring the Environmental Impact of Cigarette Butt Biodegradability

Exploring the Environmental Impact of Cigarette Butt Biodegradability

Cigarette butts are a toxic waste that leaches toxins into waterways and is difficult to remove from the environment. They are found in streets, storm drains, streams and beaches. Unlike other litter, cigarette butts persist in the background and cause chemical and microplastic pollution all along their lifecycle. They degrade slowly in the sun and break into small particles over time.


Are cigarette butts biodegradable? Cigarette butts are non-biodegradable and persist as litter for a long time, even in dry and sunny environments. They are a major source of toxic waste, igniting destructive and deadly fires and poisoning wildlife and children when ingested. They also damage habitats, landscapes and ecosystems and require tax dollars for cleanup.

They are a significant source of polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in the environment and leach organic chemicals and heavy metals that are harmful to microbes, algae, snails, fish, birds and mammals and can have lethal effects on some. They are known to inhibit ecosystem processes such as water filtration and eutrophication.

In laboratory experiments, the impact of cigarette butts and biodegradable cellulose filter ash on the survival, growth and reproductive performances of Dreissena polymorpha (zebra mussel) and Polycelis nigra (flatworm), Planorbis planorbis (ramshorn snail) and Bithynia tentaculata (faucet snail) were tested.

We found that cigarette butts and biodegradable filters acetate erode in pond water, releasing PAHs and other toxic components that can leach into and kill aquatic invertebrates and decrease their activity and ability to perform their ecosystem roles. While environmental cleanup is important, preventing the disposal of cigarettes and their filters is a much better solution. This can be accomplished through various policy approaches, including increased tobacco taxes or a returnable deposit system.


Cigarette waste contains over 7000 toxic chemicals, including 250 that are harmful and 69 that are carcinogenic. When cigarette butts are retained on land, they slowly leak chemicals into the environment, which can cause problems for both humans and wildlife.

These chemicals include polyaromatic hydrocarbons, pesticide residues from tobacco fields and additives, and cellulose acetate (the material that cigarette filters are made of). Studies have shown that cigarette butts can leach these toxic compounds into water. For example, one study found that a single cigarette butt soaked in a liter of water released enough toxins to kill half the saltwater and freshwater fish that were exposed to it for 96 hours. In addition, cigarette butts can release microplastic fibers into the environment.

These fibers can become airborne and are inhaled by humans. This can lead to lung diseases such as bronchitis and cancer. The toxins and microplastics in cigarette butts can also harm ecosystems by contaminating the soil, polluting lakes and rivers, and poisoning marine life.

Cigarette companies and governing bodies should be held accountable for their products’ post-consumer waste, including cigarette butts. This means implementing policies that prevent butt litter and encourage responsible disposal practices among smokers. It would also mean not blaming smokers for their behavior and instead providing convenient disposal receptacles for them to use while smoking outdoors and educating consumers on the risks of cigarette butt waste.

Water Pollution

Cigarette butts are the most common type of litter collected during beach cleanups worldwide. Discarded filters are made of cellulose acetate, a form of plastic that does not biodegrade naturally. As a result, they contain toxic chemicals from the surrounding environment and leach them into waterways, killing fish and other marine life.

It is also not uncommon for field researchers to find cigarette butts inside the bodies of dead sea birds, dolphins and other marine mammals. The chemicals in cigarette butts are dangerous to aquatic life, but they are especially harmful when the filter breaks down into smaller pieces and is then ingested by marine animals. During the decomposition process, the acetate from the cigarette filters absorbs and concentrates toxicants from the surrounding environment.

The chemicals are absorbed through the animal’s skin, lungs and digestive tract and enter its bloodstream. This can be deadly for aquatic animals, causing kidney and liver failure, paralysis, blindness and even death. While cigarette consumption is decreasing in the United States, smokers are still discarding their butts improperly, even though many smokers do not like the taste and smell of cigarettes and the ashtrays used to dispose of them.

Public education campaigns and increased regulatory enforcement are needed to change this societal norm. Messages on cigarette packs that explain that cigarette butts do not biodegrade and are toxic to wildlife could be an effective solution.


Cigarette butts are more than just litter; they can be toxic. Even when retained on land, cigarette butts can release over 7000 chemicals into the environment, including 250 known to be harmful and 69 that are carcinogenic. Those chemicals can seep into water sources, poisoning the environment and commercial fisheries. Scientists have found cigarette butts inside the bodies of dead sea birds, turtles, fish and dolphins.

One lab study showed that when soaked in water, a single cigarette butt released enough toxins to kill 50 percent of saltwater and freshwater fish. The problem is not limited to beaches; cigarette butts are collected in streets, drains and streams and ultimately wind up in rivers and the ocean.

They are also a nuisance in parks, public spaces and bus stops, where they can cause fire hazards and create environmental blight. Studies show that people who believe that cigarette butts are not biodegradable are less likely to litter them by throwing them out of cars.

Education campaigns and increased enforcement of anti-litter laws may help to change that, as will efforts to produce more environmentally friendly filters. Some research shows that using starch-based filters rather than cellulose acetate can significantly reduce the impact of cigarette butts on the environment. These filters are made from a non-petroleum source and are biodegradable in a few months.


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