Cigarette Butt Litter

From Beachapedia

An immature Red billed gull trying out a cigarette butt as food

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 San Francisco about Cigarette Butt Litter:

And here's one from Tobacco Free California:

Economic Costs

Butts litter.jpg
  • Researchers from San Diego State University and Avalon Economics estimate handling tobacco waste products from cigarette butts to e-cigarette cartridges could cost taxpayers as much as $90,000,000 a year.
  • Tobacco litter abatement costs to cities are substantial, even when the costs of toxicity and reduced tourism are excluded.
    • In San Francisco, the tobacco abatement cost was ~ $5.6 million in 2009.
  • Abatement tasks typically include the following, each with associated labor and equipment costs:
    • Provision and management of disposal receptacles (general and tobacco product waste-specific);
    • Mechanical street sweeping;
    • Mechanical and/or manual power washing;
    • Manual cleanup;
    • Storm drain clean out; and,
    • Water treatment processes.
  • Butts collect in storm drains, emptying into waterways and/or clogging storm drains and sanitary sewer systems.
  • Among businesses surveyed in a Florida litter survey, 98% said that the presence of litter lowered property values and had a negative impact on business sales
  • Other costs can be incurred if a discarded cigarette butt starts a fire that destroys a forest, field, or people's homes.

Environmental Cost of Cigarettes

Bird Butt.jpg

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

  • Cigarette butts are not biodegradable, and a study found that a cigarette butt was only 38% decomposed after two years.[1]
  • Yearly, 6 trillion cigarettes are smoked worldwide, and 4.5 trillion cigarettes are littered in the environment.[2]
  • Cigarette butts are consistently at the top of the International Coastal Cleanup (ICC) Top 10 list both globally and in the U.S. In 2019, ICC participants around the world picked up 5,716,331 butts, outpacing bottle caps, food wrappers, plastics bags, and straws.[3]
  • Plastic components that make up the filter, like cellulose acetate, eventually can be broken down into smaller pieces, but they accumulate in the environment due to their slow degradation rate[4]
  • In a study performed by Elli Slaughter of San Diego State University, when a single cigarette butt that had traces of tobacco was introduced to a liter of water, the exposure 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 - including chemicals smokers inhale:
    • Benzo[a]pyrene: found in coal tar and cigarette smoke, is one of the most potent cancer causing chemicals in the world.
    • Arsenic: a deadly poison that causes diarrhea, cramps, anemia, paralysis and malignant skin tumors. It is used in pesticides.
    • Acetone: one of the active ingredients in nail polish remover.
    • Lead: lead poisoning stunts growth, and causes vomiting and brain damage.
    • Formaldehyde: causes cancer, can damage lungs, skin, and digestive systems. Embalmers use it to preserve dead bodies.
    • Toluene: highly toxic chemical, commonly used as an ingredient in paint thinner.
    • Butane: a highly flammable key component of gasoline.
    • Cadmium: known to cause damage to the liver, kidneys and brain, and stays in the body for years.
    • Ammonia: known to cause individuals to absorb more nicotine, keeping them hooked on smoking.
    • Benzene: found in pesticides and gasoline.
  • Plastic cigarette filers have been found in the stomachs of fish, birds, whales, and other marine creatures that mistake them as food, swallowing both the harmful plastic and associated toxic chemicals. 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 leach out, threatening the quality of the water and the creatures that live in it.

Solutions - What You Can Do To Help

Butts OCquiz.jpg
  • 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. The policies in Manhattan Beach and Honolulu are great starting points for legislators who are considering cigarette ordinances for their communities.
  • 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.

Additional Information

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.


  1. Weideman, E.A. et al. 2020. Quantifying changes in litter loads in urban stormwater run-off from Cape Town, South Africa, over the last two decades. Science of The Total Environment, Vol. 724.
  2. Araujo & Costa. A critical review of the issue of cigarette butt pollution in coastal environments. 2018. Environmental Research
  3. Ocean Conservancy. 2020. The Beach and Beyond. International Coastal Clean Up 2019 Report.
  4. Bonanomi, G. et al. 2015. Cigarette butt decomposition and associated chemical changes assessed by 13C CPMAS NMR. PLoS One, Vol 10, No. 1.