Cigarette Butt Litter

From Beachapedia

An immature Red billed gull trying out a cigarette butt as food
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What's the Problem?

Cigarette butt litter is a major problem at our beaches, in the ocean and throughout the watershed. Cigarette butts discarded in parking lots, along sidewalks and in street gutters miles from the coast inevitably make their way through storm drains, creeks and rivers to the beach and the ocean. Direct litter of cigarette butts at the beach adds to the problem. It isn't just a matter of unsightly trash and litter. Toxins, toxic chemicals, and carcinogens from cigarettes collect on the filter and are then washed out into our waterways and the ocean. Birds and sea mammals ingest these toxic butts, misinterpreting them for food.

All of us can do things to eliminate cigarette litter throughout our watersheds. Here is a short PSA from Surfrider about Cigarette Butt Litter:

And here's one from students at Veteran's Memorial High School in Brownsville, Texas:

Would cigarette butts become litter if they were this size?

Source:Two Hands Project

Economic Costs

  • Some of the costs are associated with the manpower and resources to pick up litter. Who picks up litter? Employees of parks, schools, hotels, restaurants, and local governments have to pick up litter, as well as volunteers who care about the environment.
  • Cigarettes are often littered within 10 feet of a permanent ashtray. Now that most buildings do not allow smoking inside, the problem of discarded butts on sidewalks, entryways and in courtyards is increasing.
  • Other costs are incurred when a discarded cigarette butt starts a fire that destroys a forest, a field, or people's homes. Fires caused by cigarette butts claim the lives of about 1,000 people and injure about 3,000 people each year.
  • The costs of "lost revenue" are incurred when tourists will not spend their vacation dollars to visit a beach or park that is full of litter and trash.

Environmental Cost of Cigarettes

No butts about it. The environmental costs of tobacco products are more than just smoke. They include the following:

  • According to, data derived from the Ocean Conservancy demonstrated that approximately 3,216,991 cigarettes or cigarette butts were collected from beaches and inland waterways all over the world in 2009, during that year’s annual International Coastal Cleanup (ICC). However, an astonishing 1,362,741 cigarettes and butts were removed from the waterways of the United States alone. There were other items in relation to smoking that were further collected from U.S. waterways, as well. They include 18,555 cigarette lighters, 74,399 cigar tips, and 36,397 tobacco packages.
  • In a study performed by Elli Slaughter of San Diego State University, a single cigarette butt that had traces of tobacco was introduced to a liter of water. This resulted in high toxicity levels, and the death of 50% of the fish in the water. This is the result of one little cigarette butt.
  • Cigarettes contain over 165 chemicals - Some of the chemicals smokers inhale:
    • Benzo[a]pyrene: found in coal tar and cigarette smoke and it is one of the most potent cancer causing chemical in the world.
    • Arsenic: deadly poison that causes diarrhea, cramps, anemia, paralysis and malignant skin tumors. It is used in pesticides.
    • Acetone: It's one of the active ingredients in nail polish remover.
    • Lead: Lead poisoning stunts growth, causes vomiting, and causes brain damage.
    • Formaldehyde: causes cancer, can damage lungs, skin, and digestive systems. Embalmers use it to preserve dead bodies.
    • Toluene: highly toxic, commonly use as an ingredient in paint thinner.
    • Butane: highly flammable butane is one of the key components in gasoline.
    • Cadmium: cause damage to the liver, kidneys and brain, and stays in the body for years.
    • Ammonia: causes individuals to absorb more nicotine, keeping them hooked on smoking.
    • Benzene: found in pesticides and gasoline.
  • Plastic pieces have been found in the stomachs of fish, birds, whales, and other marine creatures that mistake them as food, swallowing harmful plastic and toxic chemicals. Ingestion of plastic cigarette filters is a threat to wildlife. Sometimes even young children pick up and ingest cigarette butts.
  • Wind and rain often carry cigarette butts into waterways, where the toxic chemicals in the cigarette filters leak out, threatening the quality of the water and the creatures that live in it.
  • Learn more about Cigarette Debris and Contaminated Resources: Smoking’s Effect on the Environment from VapingDaily.

Solutions - What You Can Do To Help

  • Educate community members to be responsible with their cigarette litter.
  • Provide smokers with an easily accessible, reusable means to dispose of their cigarette butts responsibly and safely.
  • Consider local and regional policies designed to significantly reduce the amount of cigarette litter thrown onto the beach by smokers.
  • Set examples for others by not littering.
  • Volunteer to help organize a cleanup.
  • Set a meeting with your local legislature to discuss the problems of litter which comes from cigarettes.
  • Buy and display one of our "Hold On To Your Butt" bumper stickers (available at Surfrider's online store)
  • Get involved with a Surfrider chapter Hold On To Your Butt campaign.


Much of the information in this article came from the website of Earth Resource Foundation.

Other sources include:

This article is part of a series on Clean Water which looks at various threats to the water quality of our oceans, and the negative impacts polluted waters can have on the environment and human health.

For information about laws, policies, programs and conditions impacting water quality in a specific state, please visit Surfrider's State of the Beach report to find the State Report for that state, and click on the "Water Quality" indicator link.