Tackling the cigarette butt pollution emergency

Tackling the cigarette butt pollution emergency

In response to the scourge of cigarette butts accumulating on the ground, in streets and in nature, citizens participated in #Megotchallenge this summer by filling bottles with this toxic waste and sharing their photos on social networks, like this one taken in Marseille, August 2019.

(Benjamin Hourticq)

People used to collect seashells and pebbles at the beach. But this summer, collecting cigarette butts is in. In recent days, the hashtags #FillTheBottle and #Megotchallenge (‘Cigarette butt challenge’ in French) have become a new global online movement for eco-mobilisation. The idea is simple: go for a walk on the beach with a bottle in your hand, fill it with cigarette butts and share your picture on social networks with the hashtag #FillTheBottle. In our age of digital technology and environmental emergency, mobilising for the environment has become a form of social capital.

In its 2017 report on tobacco and its environmental impact, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that “between 340 and 680 million kilograms of waste tobacco product litters the world each year.” As the report goes on to state, “since the 1980s, cigarette butts have consistently comprised 30-40 per cent of all items picked up in annual international coastal and urban clean-ups.”

In addition to the stunning quantity of waste they represent, cigarette butts pose serious environmental risks. According to the WHO report, tobacco product waste also contains “over 7000 toxic chemicals, including known human carcinogens, which leach into and accumulate in the environment. This toxic waste ends up on our streets, in our drains and in our water.”

According to a German study published in 2014 in the Journal of Hydrology, one cigarette butt can contaminate up to 1000 litres of water, with chemical contents above the threshold limit of toxicity concentrated in an ecosystem (also known as ‘predicated no effect concentration’, PNEC).

According to the Surfrider Foundation, cigarette butts represent 40 per cent of the litter found in the Mediterranean Sea. This pollution has a definite impact on marine ecosystems. In 2011, a team of researchers found that a single cigarette butt per litre of water was enough to kill half of the small fish used in the experiment.

Two out of three cigarettes are thrown on the ground according to the WHO

Humans, marine ecosystems, plant life: nothing and no one is spared from the toxic pollution of cigarette butts. So why does this litter continue to accumulate in streets, fields, beaches, rivers and oceans? The finger is often pointed at individual behaviour. Tossing cigarette butts on the ground is a natural gesture for many smokers. According to the WHO, two out of three cigarettes end up in gutters, the equivalent of close to 137,000 per second globally. Bastien Lucas understands the problem. The native of Brittany founded MéGo!, the only cigarette butt recycling plant in France and one of the only ones in the world. Lucas hopes to “influence smokers’ behaviour by showing them that their waste can be recycled.”

Some public authorities have tried to counter bad habits with fines. In France, throwing a cigarette butt on the ground is punishable with a fine of €68. But this system has proven inefficient given the scope of the problem. For example, in the Aix-Marseille-Provence metropolis alone, no less than 500 million cigarette butts are thrown away every year. In addition to the environmental problem it poses, collecting this waste also proves to be very expensive for public authorities. According to the Association des villes pour la propreté urbaine (Association of Cities for Urban Cleanliness), urban cleanliness operations cost an average of €38 per resident and €13,000 per kilometre of road in France.

Associations like Greenminded, a small volunteer-run organisation founded in Marseille in 2017, are attempting to address the problem of cigarette butt litter, which has proven difficult for public authorities to manage. Greenminded sells cigarette butt collection kits to individuals, companies and municipalities, who fill them up and send them back by post.

“First we register the kits,” explains Greenminded founder Alice Comble. “We then do an initial sorting to separate the cigarette butts from the other waste present, an initial drying of the butts [essential to treating them] and put them into circulation.” This means sending the waste to the Mégo ! recycling centre in Brittany. “The idea is to collect cigarette butts before they end up in household waste,” explains Comble. Indeed, cigarette butts that don’t end up on the ground instead end up in bins and are then buried. “Some companies say they recycle, but they either store the butts or they use them for energy recovery, especially for cement plants,” explains the founder of Greenminded.

Greenminded and Mégo! view their recycling concepts as more virtuous and more in line with the circular economy. “We recycle cellulose acetate, which represents 75 per cent of the biomass of a cigarette butt,” explains Lucas of Mégo!, “and we make it into street furniture.” The cigarette butts are sorted, the plastic in the filter is separated from the other pollutants and transformed into cellulose fibre before being thermo-compressed to produce plastic plates, which can be used to design objects. “Our main strength is that we use zero chemical products,” says Lucas. “We are able to achieve effective detoxification by just using water in a closed circuit.” The water used to decontaminate the cigarette butts is then itself decontaminated on site.

Speeding up the timetable for manufacturer responsibility

Despite the progress made by Mégo!, cigarette butt recycling has been slow to emerge and relies on just a few private initiatives. It remains to be seen whether legal frameworks can make a difference. In June, the European Union adopted a directive on the reduction of the impact of certain plastic products on the environment. The law would apply the concept of extended producer responsibility, which requires all manufacturers to be responsible for the waste generated by their products, to the tobacco industry.

Surprisingly exempted from this obligation until now, cigarette companies will have until 2024 to comply with it. “This is simply not enough,” says François-Michel Lambert, Member of Parliament from the Bouches-du-Rhône in southern France, who publicly opposes the excesses of the tobacco industry, its tax advantages, its pollution and its parallel markets. “Why wait until 2024? That’s too late. We are facing an emergency,” says Lambert. “There is a lack of political will to deal with this problem.” In addition to the European directive, he is also referring to the French government, which, after meeting with tobacco companies, is planning to impose the same deadline.

When lawmakers return from summer holidays, Lambert will propose two amendments to the circular economy bill put forward by Edouard Philippe’s government: “Firstly, an environmental contribution applied to each pack of cigarettes [editor’s note: already proposed by French senators in 2013 but rejected] and secondly, a ban on plastic filters starting in 2024.”

This idea is shared by several organisations such as Cigarette Butt Pollution Project, composed of scientists, environmentalists and politicians that seeks to ban cellulose acetate filters in the United States, as well as by the WHO itself, which condemns the idea promoted by the tobacco industry that by retaining certain toxic substances, filters are good for the health of smokers. According to the organisation, this is nothing but a marketing tool in use since the 1950s: “We know that the claim that filtered cigarettes are healthier is false. The only thing that filters have done is make it easier to smoke.”

According to François-Michel Lambert, the tobacco industry is “a very intelligent lobby which makes the case that it already pays a lot in taxes [editor’s note: taxes on packs of cigarettes] and that the problem is the smokers themselves and doesn’t concern producers.” History has shown the power of this lobby when it comes to health issues. In the face of an environmental emergency, real solutions require real political will.

This story has been translated from French.