Discarded cigarette butts are seemingly everywhere. Not just unsightly and unhygienic, these cigarette remnants harm vegetation and negatively impacts plant growth when discarded in grass and soil. This endemic form of pollution is also harmful to birds and other animals who mistake it as a food source.
Cigarette butts are an under-acknowledged but widespread environmental pollutant and a source of global concern. As harmful as cigarette butt pollution may be, not many people know that this is also a form of plastic pollution.
The National Council Against Smoking and Greenpeace Africa have launched the #BanTheButt campaign on their Vuma.Earth platform as an initiative forming part of Plastic-free July. The objective of #BanTheButt is to raise awareness about the plastic in cigarette butts – and the harm it causes.
“Not many people know this, but cigarette butts consist of a form of plastic called cellulose acetate,” says executive director of the National Council Against Smoking, Savera Kalideen. “It takes months – and sometimes years – for cigarette butts to break down into smaller pieces of cellulose acetate plastic – but it will never biodegrade,” she explains.
Tobacco companies called upon to take responsibility
According to research from the National Income Dynamics Study, around 23.5 billion cigarettes are consumed annually in South Africa. Even more concerning than this staggering statistic, is that the majority of these butts will not be discarded in an appropriate waste receptacle.
“Cigarette butts are the most-frequently collected litter items on beaches and other bodies of water globally,” says Kalideen. “In South Africa, cigarette butts are the third most common item of litter found on beaches during cleanup initiatives,” she adds.
The #BanTheButt campaign has called for the ‘polluter pays’ principle to be applied. This idea forms part of a set of broader principles (formally known as the 1992 Rio Declaration), which guides sustainable development worldwide. This principle underpins the majority of regulations concerning air, water and land pollution.
The fight against plastic should not be fought by the public alone
Applying the ‘polluter pays’ principle to cigarette butt pollution means that tobacco companies, producers of the cigarettes that end up polluting the environment, would take responsibility for the collection and appropriate disposal of cigarette butts. This task should not become the sole burden of responsibility on tax-paying citizens and South African municipalities.
The Vuma.Earth campaign calls on the South African government to introduce legislation that will compel tobacco companies to:
- Do away with cigarette filters, or redesign them in order to be completely biodegradable.
- Take responsibility for the disposal of cigarette butts and all other forms of cigarette waste and carry the financial burden of the management and disposal of all cigarette waste products.
- Ensure the safe disposal of cigarette waste materials.
Greenpeace Africa Pan-African Plastic project spokesperson, Nhlanhla Sibisi, said that plastic waste is changing the face of Africa – and that the fight against plastic should not be a battle that the public has to fight by itself.
“Corporations need to rethink their role in alleviating – and ultimately eliminating – single-use plastic. We need to start increasing pressure on the relevant corporations to take action,” he says.
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