Cigarette butts take HOW LONG to biodegrade!?

Elise and I took part in a waterway cleanup project to help clean up Crystal Lake in Flowood, MS this past summer.  The event sponsors (United by Blue) had a speaker to talk briefly about water conservation issues and one of the factoids that the speaker threw out at us absolutely blew my mind!

Did you know that it can take up to 10 years for a cigarette butt to biodegrade!? I sure didn’t! I always thought that cigarette butts were an unsightly, disgusting, but fairly innocuous piece of trash.

I thought that cigarette filters were made out of cotton and paper and that they would degrade pretty rapidly, but it turns out that the filter material is actually a kind of plastic called cellulose acetate.

Recent studies have investigated the degradation of cigarette butts and found that in the first 30 days or so, the cigarette butt degrades about as much as it is going to for years!  That initial burst of degradation (around 1/3 the mass of the cigarette butt) mostly represents the paper wrapper dissolving away.

But after that first month or so, what we are left with is the cellulose acetate filter that is saturated with toxins like nicotine, cyanide, ammonia, formaldehyde, and benzene.

Did you know that the toxins in one cigarette butt are enough to kill the microorganisms and crustaceans in two gallons of water – and that they are also known to be toxic to fish, birds, and insects.

photo of a man sitting on wooden bench

But still, they’re just tiny little cigarette butts, right?

Consider this – about 5 trillion cigarettes are consumed per day weighing about 2 billion pounds.  If you guesstimate that all those cigarettes are 2/3 consumed before they are discarded, then that is still 1.3 billion pounds of poison-saturated plastic being discarded into our environment per year.

That is enough poison to kill all the crustaceans and microorganisms in 20 million Olympic swimming pools.


Categories: Conservation, Nature