What are some non-biodegradable pollutants

Are cigarette butts biodegradable?

Cigarette filters are usually made of plastic. In addition, up to 7000 different chemicals collect in them and too often they end up in nature. What happens then and what can environmentally conscious smokers pay attention to?

What material are cigarette filters actually made of? Image: pixabay.com.

A cigarette butt usually consists largely of a filter. And conventional cigarette filters are made of cellulose acetate, which is enriched with chemicals and only naturally decomposes after ten to 15 years. On the one hand, this artificial material creates plastic waste. In addition, if thrown away carelessly, the filters - like chewing gum - can be mistaken for food and swallowed by birds and marine animals, which sometimes leads to starvation.

Billions of cigarette butts annually

The amount of cigarette butts that land on the ground in cities, by the sea and in nature every year is anything but a minor issue. According to a publication by the Institute for Landscape Ecology and Resource Management at the Justus Liebig University in Giessen, 5.6 trillion cigarettes are smoked worldwide each year, and around 4.5 trillion of them are improperly disposed of. The study "Tobacco and its environmental impact" by the World Health Organization (WHO) states that cigarette filters make up 30–40 percent of all garbage that is collected from the ground in cities and on beaches.

Birds and other animals can mistake cigarette filters for food. Image: pixabay.com

Eco alternatives: what can consumers do?

How can the plastic waste caused by left-over cigarette filters be avoided? An alternative is offered by ecological filters, for example from Greenbutts, which specializes in their production. They consist of pure natural fibers such as flax, hemp, cotton and wood, they are glued with natural strength. According to the manufacturer, these rot after about a month and they do not leave any plastic residues in nature.

Large manufacturers of conventional filters such as OCB and Gizeh are now also offering an ecological alternative. In Germany and Austria, these alternatives have so far only been available as loose filters that you can roll yourself, but not in finished cigarettes.

Glass, activated carbon and cork

Reusable glass filters may also be a truly environmentally friendly alternative to harmful cigarette filters. However, these primarily keep tobacco crumbs away from the mouth and have less of a filter function with regard to the ingredients of the tobacco. Activated carbon filters could also be a natural filter option, but they are often still made in combination with plastic parts or cellulose acetate. There is also the option of making filters yourself from natural materials such as cork.

Environmentally harmful smoke in the filter

A problem that cannot be solved even with cigarette filters made of ecological material is the toxic ingredients of tobacco that collect in the filter when you smoke. Due to their low weight and their round shape, the filters are easily transported by wind and water and thus get into the sewage system and into open waters.

In addition to the conscious selection of tobacco products, it helps to throw cigarette butts in a garbage can instead of on the street, in the residual waste and not in organic waste or compost. Also not appropriate: Disposal in a gully or other ways into the sewage system.

If the filters are disposed of properly, they are not out of the world, but at least they cannot easily end up in the wastewater.

In the sewer system and in open water, cigarette filters release harmful substances into the water. Image: pixabay.com.

There they completely release the toxins into the water, especially if they have a long decomposition time. Substances include toxic substances such as nicotine, tar and arsenic, heavy metals such as lead, copper and chromium, and pesticides. According to the WHO, at least 50 of the up to 7000 ingredients are carcinogenic.

Studies on the subject are still incomplete

It is difficult to estimate how high the actual environmental impact of pollutants from cigarettes is. A much-cited 2011 study by San Diego State University showed that one cigarette filter on one liter of water was fatal to half of the fish that were exposed to the water for several days. However, it is difficult to determine which substances are responsible for the death of fish and which of the ingredients are harmful to aquatic life in the face of the very high number of poisons it contains.

The researchers found that conventional filters, even when not in use, were seriously damaging to the health of the animals. This means that the material of conventional filters is still harmful to the environment even after the pollutants have been released. The thermoplastic fibers of these filters never completely dissolve, but only break down into tiny parts. Eco-filters, which do not contain any harmful substances by themselves, are already an improvement.

Cigarette filters turn into ashtrays

If you want to be even more environmentally conscious when smoking, you can, for example, collect the leftover cigarette and give it to the Terracycle company. The filters are used here as "raw materials" by separating them from paper, tobacco and ash residues, processing them into plastic pellets and finally using them to manufacture new products. It is used to produce, for example, benches, transport pallets and ashtrays. Recycling not only solves the problem of waste, but also that of toxins, at least temporarily.

Here cigarette filters are used as raw material. Image: Terracycle.

This approach could be used in the future, especially at open-air events such as festivals in the fields and parties on the beach, in order to keep cigarette filters out of the environment. At the Gurtenfestival and the Openair Frauenfeld there have been stands in cooperation with Terracycle since 2015 where cigarette waste can be handed in for recycling.

Toxins in tobacco remain a problem

Cigarette butts and, above all, cigarette filters are harmful to the environment. If they are collected, however, the filters are at least recyclable and therefore do less damage. Ecological alternatives decompose biologically and quickly and thus do not form plastic waste. However, they still contain toxic substances from tobacco.

It should also not be forgotten that the disposal of the cigarette butt, including the filter, is only one factor in the life cycle assessment of a cigarette. The type of cultivation, production, transport routes and packaging also play a major role in the question of the environmental impact of smoking.