Cigarette Butts – a dangerous waste for marine life


While the consequences of consuming tabacco on human health are widely known, the environmental damages caused by cigarette butts thrown away in nature are rarely addressed. As cigarette butts are not biodegradable, they pile up in vast amounts in our oceans. Did you know for example that 98% of cigarette filters are made out of plastic fibers?1 With more than 4.5 trillion butts littered each year, according to National Geographic, they are even attributed one of the biggest man-made ocean contaminants worldwide.

When cigarettes are smoked, burnt and left, they do not simply represent a littering problem. This is because conventional cigarette filters contain up to 4000 chemicals and heavy metals. These substances after smoking remain in the butts and turn into toxic and dangerous waste, such as lead, nicotine and arsenic (arsenic is naturally component of the earth’s crust, however in its inorganic form arsenic is highly toxic2, and was used e.g. in rat poisoning3). As such, they can be a severe danger for small marine animals and can even destabilize entire ecosystems.

This effect of cigarette butt pollution on marine life is demonstrated in many scientific experiments. As researchers at the University of San Diego under the lead of Prof. Thomas Novotny, found out, fish exposed to the amount of nicotine represented in 1 cigarette butt and dissolved in 1 liter of water can kill them after only 4 days. With nicotine, fish begin to shake, turn upside down and finally sink to the ground. Some toxins can even accumulate in certain fish, such as the trout, and thus remain in the food chain of the ecosystem for longer time.4

So what can you do against cigarettes pollution in the ocean?

  • Reduce your impact. Dispose cigarette butts responsibly. Take a bag or portable ash tray with you on the beach. 
  • Participate in Cleanups – Cigarette butts are the item mostly recovered at cleanups. Tell your peers about the problem.

Did you know that cigarette butts can even be recycled. The initiative TobaCycle collects cigarette ends through restaurants, bars and companies and utilize the recycled plastics from the filters to produce new products such as recycled cups and ashtrays. This means less waste; less pollution and materials are kept in the cycle5


by Julia Pfeiffer


1) National Geographic (2021): Tania Velin, Kelsey Nowakowski. Sources: Bradford Harris, Tobacco Control, 2011 ; Viceroy;Truth Initiative; Terracycle; 5 Gyres Institute

2) WHO (2021): Arsenic.

3) California Against Litter (2020): Cigarette Litter.

4) Slaughter E, Gersberg RM, Watanabe K, Rudolph J, Stransky C, Novotny TE. Toxicity of cigarette butts, and their chemical components, to marine and freshwater fish. Tob Control. 2011 May;20 Suppl 1(Suppl_1):i25-9. doi: 10.1136/tc.2010.040170

5) ZDF Heute (2019): Umweltproblem Zigarettenkippen,

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