August 27, 2022
Hello and welcome to All Indians Matter. I am Ashraf Engineer.
What’s the most littered form of plastic in India? Take a wild guess. Believe it or not, it’s cigarette butts. Every year, 100 billion cigarette butts get dumped in the landfills of India, accounting for 26,454 tons of waste. Few people know that cigarette filters are made of cellulose acetate, a plastic that takes almost 10 years to completely decompose. In fact, such filters are thought to be the world’s most littered form of plastic with close to 4.5 trillion butts polluting the environment every year. Oceans Conservancy, a global advocacy group, says cigarette butts are second among the top three articles collected during beach clean-ups and numerous studies show that the filters are accumulated masses of potentially toxic waste, posing a serious danger to land and sea life when ingested and polluting groundwater near landfills not containing leachate. Cigarette waste is injurious not only to health but also the environment.
Here’s a scene you would be familiar with. You’ve taken a break from work with colleagues and you head to the chai stall close by. There are several others like you there, sipping a cup of tea with one hand and holding a cigarette in the other. As they finish their cigarettes, they stub them out and put them in the dustbin or, more often, simply flick them onto the street. What you’re witnessing is the addition of yet another cigarette butt to the millions thrown away every day.
As I said earlier, cigarette butts are the most littered item on Earth and a major source of microplastic pollution. The World Health Organization says such tobacco product waste contains more than 7,000 toxic chemicals, paper and rayon, in addition to cellulose acetate. So toxic are the chemicals that leach from a single cigarette butt can kill 50% of saltwater and freshwater fish exposed to it for 96 hours, according to a report by the Truth Initiative, a US-based NGO.
The Indian Institute of Toxicology says that cigarette butts, under ambient conditions, show only 37.8% degradation in two years, which means that they continue to pollute long after disposal. The study suggests recycling the cellulose acetate as a possible solution. A worried National Green Tribunal has directed the Central Pollution Control Board to formulate norms for the disposal of cigarette butts but nothing has come of it.
Let’s not forget that our growing urban centres are spending fortunes in clearing litter and the cigarette butts add to the burden. Most people simply look the other way when somebody throws a smoked cigarette on the road but this is a public nuisance and the cost should be borne by the polluter.
I don’t know what the costs in India are but some desktop research shows that in San Francisco clearing up tobacco waste costs $22 million annually, while in the UK it’s about £140 million. France has directed tobacco companies to take voluntary action against such littering and the resulting contamination of water. If they don’t, the government will introduce legislation that will compel them to do so and introduce penal clauses against those that don’t comply. The European Union, meanwhile, has brought cigarette butts under the Extended Producers Responsibility, or EPR, to develop less-polluting alternatives.
In India, the government recently proposed draft rules for EPR, that would make manufacturers responsible for managing plastic waste after its use. This is consistent with Article 5.3 of the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control Treaty that India signed in 2004. This also means that smokers will pay more for cigarettes with the extra amount being used for the clean-up.
For those of you who don’t know, EPR is the responsibility for management of disposal of polluting products by producers once those products are no longer in use by consumers. The producer must facilitate a reverse collection mechanism and recycling of the waste.
India has recently banned single-use plastic but cigarette consumption is high and will keep adding to the litter. By including cigarette butt litter under Plastic EPR, the government could raise awareness of the issue and maybe even create more resources to deal with it.
This is important because not much has been done at the government level to contain such pollution. Cigarette butts, like so many plastics, make their way into our seas and deep into the ground. This contaminates the food we eat and the water we drink.
It’s impossible to keep scaling up litter clearance at the rate needed, so awareness is the key. People must know what cigarette butts do to the environment and how they can be collected or recycled.
The recycling part, however, is tough and usually done mindlessly. Activists say recyclers use unsustainable means and land up doing more harm than good. For instance, they often use cigarette butts as stuffing for soft toys, bean bags and cushions. They dip the cigarette butts into a chemical solution in order to clean them and then use them as stuffing. However, even these so-called clean cigarette butts are very toxic as they are made of microplastics. In any case, not even 1% of the cigarette butts generated in India are recycled.
The solution, of course, is to not smoke at all. It’s good for you and, as an added incentive, it’s good for the environment too. If you must smoke, make sure you’re disposing the cigarettes in bins. In many areas there are separate bins for cigarettes, so make sure you use them. Cigarette butt pollution is ubiquitous but has, for some reason, escaped most people’s attention as a major environmental hazard.
The fight to save the planet is multi-pronged and it will be carried out at various levels. Before I researched this episode, even I didn’t know cigarette butts are the most polluting items in the world. But now that I do, it worries me and I decided to do my bit to spread awareness about it. Check out the show notes for links to related articles and resources. And, as the cliché goes, kick the butt.
Thank you all for listening. Please visit allindiansmatter.in for more columns and audio podcasts. You can follow me on Twitter at @AshrafEngineer and @AllIndiansCount. Search for the All Indians Matter page on Facebook. On Instagram, the handle is @AllIndiansMatter. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch you again soon.