A new study co-authored by a Simon Fraser University (SFU) researcher is raising awareness about the environmental impact of cigarette butts.
The researchers are calling for the tobacco companies to be held accountable for the environmental harms caused by cigarette butt waste.
They say cigarette butts are the most common waste product in the world with up to five trillion cigarette butts disposed each year worldwide.
The study describes how two-thirds of butts from smoked cigarettes are discarded in surrounding environments, buried in landfills or poured down storm drains, leading to costly cleanup and, in some situations, requiring an emergency response.
Study co-author Kelley Lee says the Vancouver Fire Department extinguished more than 35 grass fires caused by discarded butts in just one week during last summer’s dry weather.
Lee says while other industries that produce hazardous consumer goods, such as paint, fluorescent light bulbs and unused pharmaceuticals, are legally responsible for safe disposal, tobacco companies ignore the responsibility of butt disposal.
The researchers are calling for a new regulatory approach that would mandate the industry to prevent, reduce and mitigate the environmental harm caused by tobacco product waste.
Lee says they have been trying to publicize this problem for a while.
“Here in B.C., despite us being pretty good about take-back programs and recycling, we seem to not have caught on that this is a serious problem,” says Lee. “Most people don’t realize that the butts stay in the environment and there are toxic chemicals in them that persist and leach into our water.”
She says when they asked SFU students about what they thought was toxic on their campus, none of them thought of cigarette butts.
“People don’t even see them as litter anymore. It has almost become normal to see them on the ground,” says Lee.
She says while governments around the world deal with the issue by doing clean-ups, installing recycling bins and simply expecting people not to litter, a more holistic approach is needed.
“Ultimately we want to see these tobacco companies be held responsible for cost recovery,” says Lee. “At the moment taxpayers and communities have to handle the clean-up bill.”
While this is a worldwide issue and some states in the U.S. are considering legislation changes, Lee says there is hardly any discussion going on in Canada.
“I would love to see the debate being started on this here,” she says.