Plastic straws are getting all the attention lately, with cities like Vancouver and Seattle banning the use of them. Even major corporations like Starbucks and McDonald’s have jumped on the environmental bandwagon and implemented their own plastic straw ban, citing ocean pollution.
But there is a worse polluter floating in the ocean, damaging habitats, poisoning fish and costing tax dollars for cleanup and disposal, according to environmental experts.
On Monday, a report by NBC News named cigarette butts as the single greatest source of ocean pollution — surpassing plastic straws.
The filters in cigarettes are made of tiny plastic particles that take decades or more to decompose. And they serve no use. According to a World Health Organization (WHO) report, cigarette filters were created in the 1950s by the tobacco industry in an effort to make smoking a “healthier” alternative to unfiltered cigarettes.
“As we now know, claims that filtered cigarettes were ‘healthier’ were fraudulent,” the WHO said in its report.
And while the banning of plastic straws is gaining momentum, some experts believe the focus should be on cigarette filters instead.
WATCH: More and more businesses are phasing out the plastic straw
‘The most littered item on earth’
A campaign, called the Cigarette Butt Pollution Project, hopes to “eradicate” cigarette butts and tobacco waste from the environment.
According to the project, out of the 5.6 trillion cigarettes that are made with these filters each year, almost two-thirds are dumped irresponsibly. Many of the filters contain harsh chemicals like nicotine, arsenic and heavy metals.
“Tossing a cigarette butt on the ground has since become one of the most accepted forms of littering globally and borders on a social norm for many smokers,” the WHO said in its report, adding that around 680 million kilograms of tobacco waste litters the world each year.
Tobacco product waste also contains over 7,000 toxic chemicals, including known human carcinogens, which leach into and accumulate in the environment, the WHO stated.
“This toxic waste ends up on our streets, in our drains and in our water. Research has shown that harmful chemicals leached from discarded butts, which include nicotine, arsenic and heavy metals, can be acutely toxic to aquatic organisms,” the report said.
The Truth initiative, a U.S.-based anti-smoking organization, also launched a campaign targeting cigarette butts calling it “the most littered item in the world.”
But there are people trying to fix this problem.
A San Diego startup called, Greenbutts is developing a filter made of organic material, like hemp and wood pulp, that quickly breaks down in soil or water. According to NBC, the company says its product is ready for market and can be delivered for a reasonable price if it’s mass produced.
There is also the International Coastal Cleanup, put on by the Ocean Conservancy. The initiative has been taking place since 1986, and every September millions of volunteers from around the world — including Canada — clean up trash from beaches and waterways. There is also a goal of documenting the trash littering the coastline.
“Since inception, cigarette butts have been the most common item found every year,” Nick Mallos, director of the Trash Free Seas campaign for the Ocean Conservancy, said.
“But we still need more research on the impact of the fibres on marine animals and humans. We do know that the plastic can break up in many small fibres that can be ingested.”
He said educating people on the impact cigarettes filters have on the environment is key as a lot of people may not know.
“So letting people know it’s not just flicking away paper and tobacco, but also plastic that can go into the marine environment,” Mallos said.
And people are starting to talk about the environmental hazards of the filters.
In February 2018, California politician, Mark Stone introduced legislation that would prohibit cigarette butts that contain a filter.
WATCH: Plastic pollution crisis — how waste ends up in our oceans
“California has strong laws to deter people from littering, but in spite of the threat of having to pay up to $1,000 in fines and cleaning up litter for up to 24 hours, people continue to discard cigarette butts on roadways, in parks, in gutters, and other places in their communities,” the legislation stated.
“In annual ocean cleanups in 2016, cigarette butts remained the top collected item of litter in California, in the United States, and internationally.”
The bill was not passed, but despite this, Mallos said it clearly indicates that the issue is moving forward.