The journey of a cigarette
A man in his early 40s sits in the driver’s seat of a small truck. He holds a short cigarette in his right hand, gesturing with it as he speaks to his passenger. The man pauses to take another puff from the cigarette before tossing it out his window. The light changes and the truck drives away. The man will probably never think about that cigarette again. But that is not the end of this cigarette’s life.
Several vehicles press the cigarette into the black, textured asphalt. It remains on the road for days. Dark clouds fill the sky and rain cleanses the streets of disregarded rubbish and forgotten cigarettes butts. Water rushes down the road and the cigarette butt finally leaves the intersection. But only to end up down a drain. The drain leads the butt through underground pipes that end at a river. From here the river takes the cigarette to the ocean.
But it’s still not done. The cigarette butt has been leaking toxins into the water the whole trip. But now in the ocean, marine wildlife might mistake it for food. If the butt is not eaten it will spend up to 10 years breaking down in the water underneath the hot sun. Tiny bits of plastic in the cigarette’s filter are released into the environment, and what was once a simple cigarette is now a dispersed mess of plastic and toxins that are seemingly impossible to remove from the environment.
The Truth Initiative released an advertisement in April 2018 naming cigarette butts as the most littered item on Earth. The Ocean Conservancy’s 2018 Cleanup Report, Building a Clean Swell, names cigarette butts as the number one item collected from beaches around the world, with 2,412,151 cigarette butts collected. Keep Australia Beautiful also names cigarette butts as the most littered item in Australia, with six out of 10 smokers littering their butts outdoors. This means approximately seven billion of the 24 billion cigarettes sold in Australia every year are being littered.
University of WA biological oceanographer lecturer Harriet Paterson says plastic has an enormous impact on the marine environment from fish to birds and all of the tiny organisms you find in the ocean.
“So, birds that feed at sea, when they scoop off the surface of the ocean they’re also likely to pick up plastic fragments,” she says.
“The plastic might have toxic chemicals on it, but they also replace food. So, you can have a bird just starving because its eaten plastic rather than food, but also some of the plastic can block their sphincters, some of their internal sphincters. So, they might be full of food but they can’t process the food, so, these birds starve.”
Plastic in cigarettes
Cigarettes are made up of a few basic components. These include tobacco, chemical additives, a filter and paper wrapping. Most people understand the health impacts of smoking tobacco, but what you might not know is that cigarette filters contain cellulose acetate, a non-biodegradable plastic.
Edith Cowan University addiction senior lecturer Stephen Bright says this type of plastic will not break down.
“Cigarette filters contain fibreglass and it doesn’t break down, so unlike say a piece of paper that’s going to break down very quickly the fibreglass products are not going to break down,” he says.
A cigarette filter is used to trap some of the tar and smoke particles, and make it easier to smoke. Cigarette filters were introduced as a harm reduction tool, but there is little research to support the success of this.
Western Australian Seabird Rescue president Halina Burmej says the cigarette and its filter has thousands of chemicals and hundreds of known carcinogens.
“I think there is probably a bit of a false assurance from using a filter, that somehow, it’s magically collecting all the nasty chemicals that are going to kill you and protecting your health,” she says.
Paterson explains microplastics are basically bits of plastic that are under 5mm in size.
“The thing is you start with a single large piece of plastic, like a water bottle, it gets into the ocean, it gets degraded by wave action, and sunshine, and salt water, and it breaks into smaller and smaller pieces,” she says.
“So, where you did have a large piece of plastic, now you’ve got a small piece of plastic, well lots of small bits of plastic, and it’s those small bits that can get consumed by animals in the ocean.”
Keep Australia Beautiful chairman Michael Aspinall thinks plastic breaking down to small fragments is a significant issue, even though it can be avoided.
“[Plastic is] something that can be recycled, it can be reused. It’s something that can be re-manufactured, not that we want to re-manufacture plastic bags, but there are alternatives we can use in that situation and people should be thinking about that as well, about how they can avoid using plastic wherever possible,” he says.
Burmej agrees that plastic has some uses, but not cigarettes.
“Plastics themselves have some uses, you know plastic bags or bottles are sometimes useful,” she says.
“Obviously, a cigarette does nothing but cause disease and illness, so I’m pretty angry about the way that cigarettes are marketed and pushed.”
Great Pacific Garbage Patch
All the plastic entering the marine environment has to go somewhere. Paterson explains there are 10 rivers that supply 90 per cent of the plastic to the ocean.
“Then you have these big circulation patterns in the major ocean basin and that’s what’s actually concentrating the plastic in the middle of the gyres,” she says.
“And there’s actually 11 garbage patches, five of which are major. So, two in the Pacific, two in the Atlantic, and one in the Indian Ocean.”
As stated on the Ocean Clean Up website “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the largest accumulation of ocean plastic in the world.” The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the most significant example of how extreme plastic pollution can impact the marine environment. The website goes on to state “The GPGP covers an estimated surface area of 1.6 million square kilometres, an area twice the size of Texas or three times the size of France.”
Paterson explains fish live under the garbage patch, which then moves around the ocean.
“It has become a mechanism to transport invasive species from their natural habitat to new habitats, which could be devastating in different ways,” she says.
Impacts on animals
Plastic waste has a large impact on wildlife in the marine environment. Plastics are inexpensive, durable and very slow to degrade.
This makes them ideal for many products, but not ideal for the environment. Marine wildlife face issues such as entanglement, ingestion and exposure to chemicals within plastics.
As Burmej explains, certain seabird species can mistake small pieces of plastic for food and feed it to their young.
“So, you get the situation where a young Albatross chick or Shear-water chick has got a stomach full of plastic, but despite that, is slowly starving to death because there is no room in the stomach for food other than plastic,” she says.
Burmej says plastic can also serve as a kind of carrier for toxins that are picked up.
“So, they absorb things like heavy metals and pesticides. Things like that can actually get stuck to small pieces of plastic so when the bird or other marine life ingests or swallows that piece of plastic, it is then taking up the heavy metals or whatever, and then of course if people go and eat, let’s say a fish that’s swallowing stuff that’s covered in heavy metals, then we’re going to be getting those substances into us as well,” she says.
According to the Heart Foundation in 2014/2015, one in seven (14 per cent) Australians aged 15 years and older smoked daily, with an additional 2 per cent smoking irregularly. This represents 2.5 million Australians who smoke daily, with more than 200,000 smoking irregularly.
Fremantle resident Simon Meiri has been smoking for roughly two years. Meiri says he does sometimes throw his cigarette butt on the ground, but he realises it is littering.
“It depends when and where I am as to why I throw it away,” he says.
“Sometimes it might be because I’m driving, and it’s not pleasant to have a cigarette butt just in your car with you for however long you’re still driving for. Most of the time I’ll be honest, I don’t notice doing it.
“So, I’ll maybe have a cigarette in the morning and I’ll be sitting outside and I’ll be having a coffee and I’ll be so bleary eyed to the world that I don’t even notice, and I’ll get up and I’ll stumble back inside and I’ll think, ‘hang on what did I do with that?’ and I’ll check my memory and I’ll realise I’ve thrown it just somewhere in the front garden.”
Bright suggests vaping as a more environmentally friendly alternative to smoking cigarettes as you don’t have a filter that needs to be disposed of.
Bright also believes vaping is a valid harm reduction strategy.
“The evidence shows that vaping is approximately 95% less harmful than smoking,” he says.
“So, it’s not saying that we’re completely eradicating the harm by moving people on to vaping, but there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence indicating that people who have tried pre-existing treatments, like nicotine replacement, and have been unsuccessful, have been able to move on to vaping and cease smoking cigarettes.”
Meiri says he could potentially change to vaping instead but doesn’t see the point as liquid nicotine is illegal in Australia.
“These days I only smoke it for the nicotine so that would be fairly pointless,” he says.
What can we do?
While the impact plastic waste has on the marine environment is enormous, there are things we can do to help.
Burmej suggests education as well as enforcement.
“From an individual level I think smokers still don’t really get that throwing a cigarette butt is littering,” she says.
“So firstly, people have to understand its littering. Secondly, I don’t know that people appreciate that once you throw a cigarette butt on the ground, it gets washed into a drain, the drain goes to the river, and the river goes to the sea.”
According to the Department of Fire and Emergency Services cigarette butt littering fines are $200 for individuals. If you litter a lit cigarette this is categorized as “littering that causes public risk” and will result in a $500 fine.
The Keep Australia Beautiful Council states in their litter statistics that 1,318 littering fines have been issued between January and September this year in Western Australia.
The West Australian reports that “discarded cigarette butts account for about 85 per cent of all litter fines handed out in WA”.
The Keep Australia Beautiful Council reports in the National Litter Index 2017/2018 that there was a marginal increase in litter items counted compared to 2016/2017.
A 21.9 per cent rise in cigarette litter was the main contributor to the increase of litter counted.
Aspinall suggests people become litter spotters and reporters.
“That’s easily done off our website- just report anybody you see flicking cigarette butts out of vehicles or in association with the vehicle. I think it’s just making people aware to put them in the bin, extinguish those cigarettes when they’re finished with them. It’s education, that’s all it is, it’s just education,” he says.
Burmej says there a lot of small things you can do as an individual, but it it’s simply up to the individual, things aren’t going to change that much.
“The ocean is like one ecosystem, so we can talk about what we’re doing in Perth and Cottesloe Beach, but rubbish is circulating around the world and a lot in the third world, I think in Asia and Africa, people simply don’t have good rubbish collection systems and there aren’t the systems in place to stop rubbish getting into the ocean, so I guess we have to act on a global scale” she says.
Listen to Burmej talk about a pelican that was rescued because of plastic waste.