While many parts of the world have recently implemented bans on plastic straws due to their perceived role in ocean pollution, a new report suggests that there’s another, far more common source of pollution that has yet to be thoroughly regulated — cigarette butts.
According to a report from NBC News, there is a groundswell of support for the ban on cigarette filters, considering how they stand out as the world’s leading man-made source of ocean trash. Not surprisingly, given its reputation as America’s most health-conscious state, most efforts to curb cigarette butt pollution have originated from California, but NBC News pointed out that a “group of committed activists” from around the world has launched a campaign that hopes to unite activists concerned about the health risks cigarettes pose with those more centered on their environmental impact.
“It’s pretty clear there is no health benefit from filters. They are just a marketing tool. And they make it easier for people to smoke,” said San Diego State University professor of public health Thomas Novotny.
“It’s also a major contaminant, with all that plastic waste. It seems like a no-brainer to me that we can’t continue to allow this.”
So far, the most successful anti-cigarette butt initiative has come from San Francisco, where city officials launched a campaign to raise about $3 million a year in order to reduce the costs of cleaning up butts from discarded cigarettes. Likewise, the nonprofit anti-tobacco organization Truth Initiative focused on a traditionally hot market for cigarettes — the youth — when it debuted its latest campaign against cigarette butts on MTV’s Video Music Awards last week. The ad, much like two similar social media clips before it, described filters as the “most littered item in the world.”
Despite the recent focus on plastic straws as a source of ocean pollution, statistics from the Ocean Conservancy suggest that cigarette butts have, without fail, been the most collected item per year on beaches around the world since the organization’s first annual beach cleanup in 1986. With more than 60 million filters gathered in those 32 years, cigarette butts comprise approximately one-third of all collected items from beaches and take up a greater share of these items than plastic utensils, bottles, wrappers, and containers combined, NBC News added.
As cigarette filters are made up of various chemical agents and synthetic fibers, several conservationists and researchers, including SDSU’s Novotny, have hoped to find out what exact types of chemical waste from these filters leak into Earth’s bodies of water. Additionally, Nick Mallos, director of the Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas campaign, admitted to NBC News that more research is needed to determine the impact micro-plastics from ocean pollution have on human health.
Although the tobacco industry launched a number of initiatives since the early 1990s that were designed to encourage the recycling or proper disposal of cigarette filters, existing academic literature on these campaigns suggests that smokers, in general, are more used to flicking their butts as a quick and easy way to get rid of their cigarettes. Focus groups have also revealed that many smokers tend to be uninformed about the chemical content of filters or averse to using ashtrays due to their “disgusting” odor.
Even with all the aforementioned efforts from cigarette makers, as well as multiple attempts to create more environmentally friendly filters, Novotny still believes that cigarette filters need to be legislated properly because of how they increase ocean pollution and seemingly encourage people to keep smoking. He told NBC News that environmentally centered groups such as Ocean Conservancy and the Surfrider Foundation need to “establish common cause” with the American Cancer Society and other organizations that educate about the health risks cigarettes pose.
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