Cigarette Butts Are The Biggest Source Of Rubbish In The Ocean

by : Francesca Donovan on : 29 Sep 2018 17:01
Cigarette butt on beachCigarette butt on beachPexels

New research shows cigarette butts are a primary source of ocean pollution, more so than the usual suspects, plastic straws and other manmade rubbish.  


When you think of our oceans, you probably conjure up images of vast blue spaces inhabited by an abundance of enigmatic and beautiful creatures. And Finding Nemo.

Here’s what you didn’t already know about Planet Earth’s five oceans:

But, lately, discussions of the Deep Blue have taken a more urgent tone.


What’s been known by marine scientists for decades is now warranting the attention of the mainstream collective conscious: Mankind is slowly destroying the seas with ocean pollution.

The main culprits have been widely considered to be plastic straws, plastic bags and plastic bottles:

But, according to data collected by the NGO, Ocean Conservancy, an unfathomable 60 million cigarette filters have been collected from the seas since the 1980s.

That’s 60 million pieces of non-degradable plastic rubbish polluting the sea in the past 32 years – the single greatest source of ocean trash, reports NBC News.

It massively exceeds the number of plastic bags, food wrappers, drinks bottles or straws cleaned up from our oceans.

Plastic rubbish in the oceanPlastic rubbish in the oceanGetty

The NGO, which has been organising ocean cleanups since 1986, think the cigarette butts get into the sea in many different ways.


Some beach-goers dispose of their filters directly on the beach, burying them in the sand along with their acknowledgement of the problem with littering plastics.

Anti-littering sign at beachAnti-littering sign at beachPexels

We’ve all seen it and know it happens. Hell, some of us are probably guilty of it too.

In other instances, butts are carried by the rain into rivers, then into other bodies of water, and finally into the sea, where they’re carried back to the beaches by the waves.

But now we know what damage the seemingly inoffensively small cigarette butt can do.

Cigarette butts Cigarette butts Pexels

It was long assumed cigarette filters are biodegradable, but most cigarette filters are made up of at least a small amount of of cellulose acetate.

Although cellulose acetate is a natural product, a plastic which isn’t biodegradable often forms when the cellulose acetate is processed, so it actually takes a lot longer for cigarette filters to decay than you might expect.

That leaves them floating around in our oceans for ages.

Person standing on the beachPerson standing on the beachPixabay

What’s the big deal, you might ask?


It’s not as though they’re as dangerous as plastic bags which can kill sperm whales, plastic straws which are painfully ingested by turtles, or beer can rings which can trap the rostrum (or ‘noses’) of dolphins.

David Attenborough wants you to know what plastics are doing to Albatross birds: 

While those consequences are bad enough, the knock-on effects of dumping cigarette filters are dire too.

Until the filter eventually begins decaying, they release all the pollutants they absorb from the smoke of cigarettes, including substances such as nicotine, arsenic, and lead.

These, as well as the decaying plastic, are then consumed by various sea creatures. A grim thought, needless to say.

Finding NemoFinding NemoPixar

If that isn’t awful enough, the pollutants finally end up in our own food again. It’s the circle of life, people.

Some activists are trying to stop the modern manmade perpetual cycle of waste causing damage to the world. The cigarette industry has been searching for greener solutions in the hopes of scrapping cigarette filters for some time.

After all, even they know Mother Nature is awesome and should be protected:

Meanwhile, smokers are being urged to dispose of cigarette butts responsibly. It’s not uncommon behaviour to dump them wherever you see fit.

But now we know the damage we can cause, let’s be honest, there’s no excuse for using nature as an ashtray.

If you have a story you want to tell send it to UNILAD via [email protected]

Francesca Donovan

A former emo kid who talks too much about 8Chan meme culture, the Kardashian Klan, and how her smartphone is probably killing her. Francesca is a Cardiff University Journalism Masters grad who has done words for BBC, ELLE, The Debrief, DAZED, an art magazine you've never heard of and a feminist zine which never went to print.

Topics: Animals


NBC News
  1. NBC News

    Plastic straw ban? Cigarette butts are the single greatest source of ocean trash