Last updated: August 11, 2021
While cigarette smoking has decreased in recent decades, it still represents a significant risk to the environment. According to a recent CDC report, 15.5% of U.S. adults smoke. When factoring in the number of National Park Service visitors annually, 38.5 million smokers have the potential to impact the environment during their stay. Cigarette waste is the most commonly littered item in the US, with 1.69 billion pounds polluting the environment every year.
Beyond simply being unsightly, cigarettes cause real environmental impact. While many people believe that cigarettes are biodegradable, the filters in almost all cigarettes are actually made of cellulose acetate, a type of plastic. When disposed of improperly, they release a long list of harmful chemicals into the environment (cadmium, lead, formaldehyde, arsenic, etc.). In addition to these challenges, carelessly tossed cigarette butts can also start forest fires, potentially damaging hundreds or thousands of acres, or make their way into the nests of birds and other animals along with other micro-trash items.
So how do we help mitigate the impact of cigarette litter?
Education is always the best first step to solving problems such as these. National parks were created with public education in mind, and we can extend this idea to waste collection efforts. By teaching national park visitors about the environmental impact of cigarette butts, we can encourage responsible disposal of butts and other trash, not only while in the park, but also as visitors return home.
Ensure designated smoking areas are easily accessible and have butt collection receptacles. Are these areas well marked, both on signage and maps around facilities? Are the collection receptacles weather proof? By making the collection process easier, we are less likely to spend time collecting waste later.
Terracycle has created a program for collecting and recycling cigarette butts along with related trash. Through this program, individuals and businesses can print prepaid labels from the TerraCycle website directly, and cigarette waste is recycled into variety of commercial plastic products such as ashtrays, pallets, or lumber. The plastic lumber material has been used in several National Park Service locations already for park benches. In addition to recycling cigarette trash, TerraCycle also donates $1 per pound collected to the Keep America Beautiful Organization. Read Terracycle frequently asked questions.
Additionally, a team at RMIT University in Australia developed a way to incorporate cigarette waste into clay bricks, which not only reduced the energy needed to fire the bricks, but also could offset world cigarette production if used by only 2.5% of brick manufacturers.
For concessioners operating tour or mobile operations, personal sized ashtrays are available from a variety of suppliers. These have been adopted by several organizations and can be sold or given out to smokers for use during their stay.
By working together and using a multi-faceted approach, we can manage the environmental impact of cigarette smoking together.