Love your city? Bin your butts!

The problem

Plastic straws and bags gain more and more public attention as environmental pollutants. But there is another, certainly more extensive, underlying problem that stays off the radar- cigarette butts. Cigarette butts are an enormous trash issue. Approximately 6 trillion cigarettes are fabricated each year and more than 90% of them contain plastic filters. About 2/3 of cigarette butts are tossed irresponsibly into the environment, “where they leach nicotine and heavy metals before turning into microplastic pollution”.


Composition of cigarette butts

Cigarette butts consist of four parts: i) the cigarette filter, ii) burned and unburned tobacco, iii) ash, and iv) paper. The most dangerous ingredients are found in tobacco, but also remain in the filter after smoking. Only the paper wrap can be degraded fast. Filters only started being part of cigarettes in the 1950s, after the scientific community proved that smoking caused cancer and other serious diseases. Almost 99% of all smokers nowadays smoke filtered cigarettes. In the image below, you can have a clear look of the compounds described above.


Urban consequences

Since Cities Foundation is dealing with urban issues, it is only fair to mention that urban environments are the places who suffer most from cigarette litter. Cigarette butts are the most common type of litter in urban areas, forming 22–46% of litter. Ιn cities, 76% of cigarettes smoked in public are littered. According to studies, “most cigarette butt litter is located on parking places along highways, at stations and public transport stops, and at shopping centers and shopping streets in urban areas. The cleanest are recreational areas, as well as residential and shopping areas in villages”.


Other factors of cigarette littering

Cigarette litter is also related to other factors, such as age and sex. Young people more often throw their cigarettes in the street than older people, and men litter cigarette butts more often than women. Ignorance and lack of knowledge also play their part.  While most people today understand that cigarette litter is an environmental problem, a minority of them still don’t recognize tossed butts as a type of waste. Another contributing factor is policies that prohibit smoking, which lead to higher numbers of cigarette butts, and, subsequently, to greater environmental risks and clean-up costs. Cigarette butts are, in this way, commonly discarded at places of transition from an outdoor to an indoor environment where smoking is not tolerated, i.e. buildings entrances.


Situation in the Netherlands

Around 10 billion butts are thrown to the ground in the Netherlands every year, which is equal to almost 6 cigarette butts per smoker each day, almost 2500 each year. Many butts are found in a radius of 5 meters from the waste bin. Smokers often tend to believe that throwing a cigarette in a waste bin will cause a fire. But, there is more to it. For the majority of people, throwing a cigarette on the street is a mere habit.


 “There’s something about flicking that cigarette butt,” says Cindy Zipf, executive director of Clean Ocean Action. “It’s so automatic.” 


How disposal and clean-up actions affect cigarette pollution

What’s more, disposal and clean-up inadequate solutions add up to this trend. Worldwide, the disposal of cigarette waste in landfills and their incineration are neither sustainable nor practicable solutions. Recycling is also not an easy task due to the absence of proper separation and treatment mechanisms. Collection is expensive and challenging due to their small size. Litter clean-up cost is increased due to the big amount and high dispersion of cigarette butts. The clean-up costs of cigarette butts are generally borne by municipalities. In the Netherlands, the municipalities, the Directorate-General for Public Works and Water Management and the managers of nature areas are responsible for cleaning the public spaces, but that costs a lot of money. In 2010 only, keeping public areas clean cost 250 million euros. That amounts to 15 euros per inhabitant of the Netherlands.



Cigarette butts are the most common form of personal litter in the world. Does the previous sentence also apply to you? This forgotten plastic pollution hides many dangers. If we examine it socially, the impacts are numerous and they are all mentioned in the paragraphs above. In a series of articles, Cities Foundation will inform you about the very many other aspects of this “plague”. For now, don’t forget to be a thoughtful conscious citizen and think twice about leaving a trail of cigarette litter behind you! Planet Earth owes you.



  1. CNN (2019, January 25). Cigarette filters are the No.1 plastic pollutant … and don’t prevent cancer. Retrieved from:
  2. Araújo, M. C. B., & Costa, M. F. (2019). A critical review of the issue of cigarette butt pollution in coastal environments. Environmental research.
  3. Green, A. L. R., Putschew, A., & Nehls, T. (2014). Littered cigarette butts as a source of nicotine in urban waters. Journal of hydrology, 519, 3466-3474.
  4. 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.
  5. Rath, J. M., Rubenstein, R. A., Curry, L. E., Shank, S. E., & Cartwright, J. C. (2012). Cigarette litter: smokers’ attitudes and behaviors. International journal of environmental research and public health, 9(6), 2189-2203.
  6. RTL Nieuws (2019, August 15). ‘Stop straatvervuiling door statiegeld op sigarettenfilter’. Retrieved from:
  7. 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.
  8. Tobacco, WHO its environmental impact: an overview, 2017.
  9. National Geographic (2019, August 9). Cigarette butts are toxic plastic pollution. Should they be banned?. Retrieved from:


Created on 24 February 2020

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