Cigarette filters are made of 12,000 individual strands of a high-grade plastic called cellulose acetate. Cellulose acetate is also used to make sunglasses, textiles, good old-fashioned photographic film, personal hygiene products, and more.
Cigarette filters look like cotton, paper, or some other kind of natural fiber, because cellulose acetate is derived from cotton in a complex way I finally understand after reading Patricia dePra’s explanation.
Cellulose acetate is used instead of natural fibers such as cotton or paper because it holds up against heat and moisture—handy and practical features to have at the mouth-end of a lit cigarette—and because it’s cheaper and more uniform to manufacture than biodegradable alternatives.
Most smokers don’t litter other forms of plastic. And, people as a rule avoid deliberately contaminating their environment—most wouldn’t toss dead batteries off the dock or down a storm drain. But it’s still common practice to flick a plastic butt loaded with lead, cadmium, arsenic, nicotine, and other toxins on to the ground, where they leach these nasty contaminants into the water and soil, threatening life on land and at sea. Just one smoked cigarette butt was found to kill half the fish in one liter of water.
Why do smokers do this? I wish I could tell you. I’m a former smoker, and I did it too. I can tell you that I didn’t know that cigarette butts are plastic—and never thought about the toxins they trap. Nor did much thought or awareness go into that flick. It was just what you did when you finished your cigarette.
Some who study this will say that it’s because smokers want to distance themselves from their habit, and subconsciously that may be true, but mostly I think it’s because cig butts stink to high heaven and there’s often nowhere to safely toss them out. Not an excuse, I know. But it is a reason. Until we’re aware that our actions cause harm, we have no reason to change them.
The real rub is that cigarette filters do not reduce the harm of smoking, and may in fact increase it. They’re a marketing tactic used by tobacco companies to sell more cigarettes. Filters require smokers to draw more heavily on the cigarette when they take a puff, and smoke more cigarettes to get the same nicotine fix.
It’s maddening that the most littered item in the world is not only toxic and plastic, but completely unnecessary. Here in San Francisco, Surfrider’s Hold on to Your Butt program is working to change this by educating smokers, installing cigarette receptacles, advocating for enforcement of littering laws, and demanding that big tobacco get their plastic out of smokers’ butts. Together, we can keep this toxic trash out of our environment.
In the year and a half since we launched the San Francisco “cheek” of the very successful Surfrider Hold on to Your Butt cigarette waste reduction program, we’ve kept more than 71,000 cigarette butts from entering our oceans and waterways. Our predecessors in San Diego and Huntington Beach, taught us everything we needed to get the program up and running, and we at the SF chapter can’t thank them enough for that!
I’m Shelly, I lead SF’s Hold on to Your Butt program, and I’m starting this new blog, “No Filter,” to share information with San Franciscans and Surfriders alike. And giving a shameless plug for our Instagram feed @holdontoyourbutt, the Surfrider SF Facebook page, and the requisite butt pic with the naked truth: the 8,950 cigarette butts shown here were all collected at Ocean Beach and Baker Beach, and represent but a small fraction of the 4.5 trillion cigarette butts littered around the world every year.
Butts that end up on beaches don’t necessarily start there: all roads lead to the ocean, and a butt that’s flicked in the Mission can easily end up getting snuffed up by a dog at Ocean Beach or swallowed by a seagull along the Embarcadero.
Why do smokers litter these plastic, toxic cigarette butts? Why does Big Tobacco persist in sticking plastic filters on the number one most littered item in the world? Why doesn’t San Francisco do more to mitigate this toxic waste? And most importantly, how can we stop this from happening once and for all? We’ll explore this and more right here.