Cigarettes : our butting legacy!


A silent killer for the environment

Every day, millions of smokers around the world have to look at prominent, graphic pictures on their cigarette packs. Pictures showing people dying from smoking-related diseases. However, apart from health issues, cigarettes pose a very serious threat to the environment as well. Over 5.6 trillion cigarette butts are found in nature each year. By 2025, this amount is predicted to reach up to 9 trillion cigarettes. Cigarette butts have only recently been classified as hazardous waste by the European Commission.

“Two processes are mainly responsible for cigarette impacts in natural environments: the leaching of cigarette butts compounds by rainwater and its transference to water bodies through urban runoff.”


Components of cigarette butts

In the previous article, we talked about the parts of cigarette butts. This second article will inform you about the chemical components. With the exceptions of Japan, South Korea, Venezuela and Hungary, in the rest of the countries worldwide almost 90% of filters consist of plastic-like cellulose acetate. Cellulose acetate “is a synthetic polymer made from cellulose, a natural polymer of vegetable origin, through a process known as acetylation. At the end of the process, plasticizers are added”. Furthermore, burned cigarette tobacco contains up to 4000 chemical compounds. Some of them include: polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, N-nitrosamines, aromatic amines, formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, benzene, and toxic metals (Cd, As, Ni, Cu, Pb and Zn) . A big amount of these chemicals are carcinogenic. At least 150 are highly toxic. In the picture below, you can get an idea of how dangerous a cigarette is…



Environmental consequences

As it is already mentioned, cigarette butts are an extremely complicated waste, due to the fact that they accommodate an abundance of organic and inorganic compounds. Public beaches are the places that suffer the most from cigarette butts. The amount of butts is affected by a number of factors, which include: solar intensity, wind, currents, rivers, frequency of beachgoers, smokers’ behavior, efficiency of cleaning services, distance to urban centers. Studies have shown that cigarette chemicals are responsible for high mortality rates, biochemical damage, embryotoxicity, genotoxicity, neurotoxicity, weight and body composition change, as well as behavioral changes to a plethora of organisms, such as fish, amphibians, birds and mammals.

In addition, the filters of cigarettes, even unsmoked, remain toxic, because nicotine is extremely soluble in water. 1 cigarette butt can contaminate 1000 liters of water. Urban areas also suffer from the adverse consequences of cigarette butts pollution, although in a more aesthetic way. Locations with high potential for cigarette butts existence are those around shopping malls, restaurants, bars, grocery stores, gas stations, cafes, liquor stores, convenience stores, and traffic signals.



Situation in the Netherlands

Of the 10 million kilograms of cigarette butts per year that end up on the street in the Netherlands, only 80% of them are being cleaned up. The remaining 20% can take 2-12 years to totally decompose. In 2018, during the World Cleanup Day, volunteers collected more than 35,000 pieces of litter in The Netherlands. 60% of it was plastic, followed by paper and metal. Cigarette butts topped the list of “Top 5” items, thus confirming the fact that cigarette butts are the most common type of litter, personal or not.



One cigarette butt is not capable of causing great environmental damage. The accumulation, though, of huge amounts of cigarette filters is a whole different thing.The extent of pollution is also directly related to the amount of time they remain in the environment. Cities Foundation holds the opinion that cigarette butts pollution must be addressed at the same level of importance as lung cancer or other smoking-related illnesses, and that the tobacco industry must assume its share of responsibility. Do you still care about the environment? Perhaps, then, this is the most important reason to quit smoking!



  • Araújo, M. C. B., & Costa, M. F. (2019). A critical review of the issue of cigarette butt pollution in coastal environments. Environmental research.
  • Torkashvand, J., Sobhi, H. R., & Esrafili, A. (2019). Littered cigarette butt as a well-known hazardous waste: A comprehensive systematic review. Journal of Hazardous Materials, 121242.
  • RTL Nieuws (2019, August 15). ‘Stop straatvervuiling door statiegeld op sigarettenfilter’. Retrieved from:
  • Mohajerani, A., Kadir, A. A., & Larobina, L. (2016). A practical proposal for solving the world’s cigarette butt problem: Recycling in fired clay bricks. Waste management, 52, 228-244.
  • Chevalier, Q., El Hadri, H., Petitjean, P., Bouhnik-Le Coz, M., Reynaud, S., Grassl, B., & Gigault, J. (2018). Nano-litter from cigarette butts: Environmental implications and urgent consideration. Chemosphere, 194, 125-130.
  • Rebischung, F., Chabot, L., Biaudet, H., & Pandard, P. (2018). Cigarette butts: A small but hazardous waste, according to European regulation. Waste management, 82, 9-14.
  • Montalvão, M. F., Chagas, T. Q., da Silva Alvarez, T. G., Mesak, C., da Costa Araújo, A. P., Gomes, A. R., … & Malafaia, G. (2019). How leachates from wasted cigarette butts influence aquatic life? A case study on freshwater mussel Anodontites trapesiali. Science of The Total Environment, 689, 381-389.
  • Gill, H., Rogers, K., Rehman, B., Moynihan, J., & Bergey, E. A. (2018). Cigarette butts may have low toxicity to soil-dwelling invertebrates: Evidence from a land snail. Science of The Total Environment, 628, 556-561.
  • Plastic Soup Foundation (2018, September 16). Tens of thousands of pieces of litter cleared up in the Netherlands on World Cleanup Day. Retrieved from:
  • Desideri, D., Meli, M. A., & Roselli, C. (2019). Leaching tests to assess the release of 210Po from discarded cigarette butts. Microchemical Journal, 145, 42-46.
Created on 02 March 2020

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