Dangers and Facts of Cigarette Butts & Cigarette Litter

How many times have you been walking down the street and watched someone flick a cigarette butt out into the street? Or seen someone smoking on the highway and toss their lit cigarette onto the highway, inevitably joining the millions of other cigarette butts from smokers doing the exact same thing? 

You’ve probably seen this hundreds of times and thought nothing of it, because it’s done that frequently. But cigarette butt littering is a huge problem, cluttering our streets, polluting our air, and ultimately, destroying our planet. 

Let’s take an in-depth look at cigarette butt littering, and why they’re so dangerous. 

Cigarette butts might look like they’re packed with soft cotton, but they’re actually packed with thousands of tiny plastic fibers. Since plastic is not biodegradable, it takes cigarette butts over 2 years to finally decompose in a landfill. 

If that’s what the butts are made of, what chemicals are in cigarette filters? The cigarette filters are made of a different type of plastic, with 95% being cellulose acetate and the remaining 5% are rayon and paper. 

Cigarettes contain anywhere from 9mg-30mg of nicotine (depending on the brand). If that’s in the entire cigarette, how many mgs are in a cigarette butt? The unusable cigarette butts contain anywhere from 5-7mg, meaning all that extra nicotine is seeping into whatever surface it lands on, including the arsenic, lead, and other poisons that are found in cigarettes. 

Cigarette butts are harmful to the environment for several reasons. Cigarette butts are harmful to plant growth, as the chemicals leak into the soil and rob the plant of vital nutrients. Cigarettes can flow into precious waterways, poisoning the water and harming marine wildlife as the chemicals poison their bodies. 

Field researchers commonly find cigarette butts in dead sea turtles, fish, sea birds, and even dolphins! Even one cigarette butt in a single liter of water has the ability to poison and kill a fish. And with so many cigarette butts found in dead marine wildlife, it really makes you stop and wonder if that littered cigarette butt had anything to do with that animal’s death. 

Lit cigarettes also have the potential to start wildfires. Over 90,000 fires are started by carelessly tossed cigarettes every year, specifically roadside fires. 

For those of you who conscientiously throw your cigarette butt in the trash, the small size of the cigarette butt makes it very easy to fall out and pollute the environment any way. That recycled butt can get blown away, swept away, carried away (by an animal), and end up miles away from where it was originally thrown away. 

If you do recycle your cigarette butts, we’d like to humbly thank you for your conscientious effort. If you don’t currently recycle your cigarette butts but would like to start, there’s a helpful app called the Recycle Coach Network. This app provides information on various local waste and recycling practices, as well as ways to continue reducing your cigarette waste output. 

Cigarette butt littering is actually the only form of legal littering with nearly 4.5 trillion cigarette butts littered every year. However, that littered cigarette costs cities millions of dollars in active cleanup, anywhere from $3m to $16m. 

San Francisco alone spends over $7.5 million dollars to rid their streets of cigarette litter. Some statistics even show that since the 1980s, cigarette butts have comprised between 30% and 40% of all littered items (among urban and internal coastal cleanups), making them the most littered item for the longest amount of time. 

Here are some more alarming statistics and facts about cigarette litter:

How many pounds of cigarette butts are littered each year?
Since about 4.5 trillion cigarette butts are littered per year, you might wonder how many pounds of litter that is per year. According to Tobacco Free CA, nearly 1.69 billion pounds of cigarette butts end up as waste every year. 

How much area would 537 million cigarette butts take up?
The average cigarette is about 10 centimeters long. Let’s say that on average, people smoke ⅔ of the cigarette, and toss that remaining ⅓ butt away. Roughly 3 centimeters, right? Now multiply that by 537 million… that’s about 1.6 billion centimeters, or 4.75 million feet. The average size of a football field is 100 yards. That means you’d need over 47,000 football fields to cover the amount of area that 537 million cigarette butts take up...that’s a lot of area!

How long does it take for a cigarette butt to deteriorate on the side of the road?
On average, cigarette butts take up to 2 years to decompose in a landfill. However, a cigarette butt on the side of the road can be blown away, kicked, eaten, or left for days without touching anything. This single cigarette butt can take over 10 years to deteriorate, meaning that the cigarette butt you glanced at while crossing the street could have been there for as little as five minutes or as long as five years.

How long does it take for a cigarette butt to decompose in the ocean?
Just like cigarettes on the side of the ocean, cigarette butts can take up to 10 years to decompose in the ocean. The ocean has a way of preserving things, due to salt water and limited sunlight exposure, meaning your tossed cigarette from a fishing boat or party yacht may still be drifting around in the ocean for nearly a decade after you tossed it. 

What are the effects of a turtle swallowing a cigarette butt?
Remember the whole “save the sea turtles by using a metal straw instead of a plastic one?” Turns out that cigarette buts can be just as harmful. Once a turtle ingests tobacco in the cigarette butts, they can experience respiratory failure, weakness, convulsions, tremors, vomiting, lack of coordination, and even death. 

What animals are affected by cigarette butt litter?
Every animal has the potential to be affected by cigarette butt litter. Raccoons and possums are known to be trash-raiders and are especially curious creatures, meaning they are able to access cigarette butts easier than other animals. If your dog roots around in  your trash bag that you left by the side of the house, your dog might swallow a cigarette butt nestled in the remnants of last night’s dinner. Fish and marine wildlife can perish by the consumption of a cigarette butt, whether it was deliberately thrown in the water or blown in by the wind. Animals don’t know what a cigarette butt is and may innocently eat it if it is covered in trash or smells like food. 

Is it better to flush a cigarette butt than to throw it in the trash?
It might seem like an easy solution to simply flush your cigarette butt down the toilet, but did you know you can clog your toilet by doing this? Plumbers often chuckle when unclogging a toilet caused by tossed cigarette butts. And since some countries dump sewage water back into the ocean, your cigarette butt has the potential to harm more than just your toilet plumbing. Always toss your cigarette butt in the trash or designated cigarette ashtray. 

One of the best ways to clean up cigarette litter is to recycle it! Thanks to a company called Terracycle, you can now recycle used cigarette butts. 

According to Earth 911, Terracycle will accept and recycle cigarette filters, plastic and foil packaging, rolling paper, extinguished cigarettes, and even cigarette ash! As long as you provide your own containers, Terracycle will send you a prepaid label and instructions on how to package your recycled cigarette products. 

You can also volunteer to clean up cigarette recycle as part of community service and neighborhood volunteer cleaning services. Since cigarette butts are not fully biodegradable, a service like Terracycle is immensely valuable for keeping our environment, wildlife, and fellow humans safe. 


Where did the term cigarette butt come from?
The term “cigarette butt” was first used in 1847. While it might seem like a posterior joke reference, it actually refers to the thicker lower end of a weapon, such as the butt of a gun. And since it’s also the “rear end” of the cigarette, the term cigarette butt becomes extremely amusing in today’s terminology. 

What is the cigarette butt rule under PLCB Law?
As you may be aware, the Clean Indoor Air Act of 2008 was established to eliminate smoking in public places, such as restaurants, amusement parks, concerts, and any large public gathering.  However, the PCLB (which stands for Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board) states that some places that sell less than 20% of the business’s annual sales do not have to enforce the smoking ban of public places. For example, if you’re in a bar that doesn’t serve food, you’re allowed to smoke in it. There are other exemptions, so those residing in Pennsylvania should check with the Pennsylvania Department of Health.  

Is the tip or butt of a cigarette worse?
The tip of the cigarette is actually biodegradable, as the tip is designed to be burned as it is used. The leftover part of the cigarette, also called the butt, contains tiny plastic fibers that can take up to a decade to fully degrade. Discarded cigarette butts that have become completely cold can actually give off up to 14% of the same amount of nicotine that smoldering cigarettes emit. 

What happens if you eat the toxins from a cigarette butt?
Earlier in this article, we mentioned the symptoms of what happens when a sea turtle eats a cigarette butt. Many of those same symptoms are present when humans eat a cigarette butt. The toxins in the cigarette butt can result in poisoning, salivation, nausea, and vomiting. More severe symptoms can include respiratory depression, cardiac arrhythmias, and bradycardia with hypertension. That being said, please do not ever consume a cigarette, either on purpose or by accident. 

What happens if your pet eats cigarette butts?
You can be as cautious as possible in keeping cigarette butts away from your pet. Dogs specifically are famous for rooting through the trash. If your dog does ingest a cigarette butt, take him to a vet immediately. Your dog can experience vomiting, drooling, weakness, diarrhea, constricted pupils, and agitation. If your dog starts to tremble or twitch, this can lead to seizures, heart failure, and even death. 

Can you put cigarette butts in kitty litter?
While it’s recommended you put kitty litter in your ashtray to soak up moisture, it is strongly advised that you do not extinguish your cigarette butts in kitty litter. The smoldering ash from cigarette butts can actually catch fire in your litter box, resulting in flames that might threaten to burn your house down! If you’re looking for a safe place to toss your cigarette butts, use an ash tray until you can send out the used cigarette products to Terracycle for proper recycling. 

How long can germs survive on a cigarette butt?
In an article from ABCnews.com, germs can indeed be present on cigarette butts. That being said, germs are literally on everything we touch. The harmfulness of these germs is what is unclear, as well as how long these germs can survive on a burning cigarette. However, since the tip of a cigarette is the part that remains hot, it is possible that germs may remain on the cooler part of the cigarette, such as the tip. 

Can you really get herpes from picking up a cigarette butt?
Oral herpes are transmitted via several forms of secretion, including lipstick, lip balm, cigarettes, and anything that comes in contact with the sore. However, you would need to smoke the herpes-infected cigarette butt, which is absolutely disgusting to even think of. There is literally no reason to be picking up a random cigarette butt with your bare hands. If you are taking part in a cleanup or recycling program, make sure you wear proper protective gear, such as gloves and masks.

How hot are sparks from a cigarette butt?
Cigarette tips can reach a temperature of 900℃, also 1652℉. That’s a lot of heat! As the cigarette burns, the nicotine, flavor, and aroma are released, creating the desirable smoking experience that smokers crave. 

This article has highlighted some of the most detrimental effects of cigarettes on the environment, on animals, and even humans. It covers how to properly recycle your cigarette butts, as well as why you should not toss your cigarettes into kitty litter, flush them down the toilet, or flick them into the ocean. 

You also learned how some establishments allow smoking indoors, as well as what happens if your pets or other animals happen to ingest a cigarette butt. You should never share your cigarettes, pick up loose cigarette butts with bare hands, or consume a cigarette butt (whether on purpose or by accident). This exhaustive article has covered many topics, and yet there are many other questions you may be curious to know the answers to. You can always reach out to us via email or social media, and we’d be happy to share our knowledge with you, to the best of our abilities!