Environmental Outcomes of

Tobacco Use

Cigarette smoking can have a variety of effects on the global environment. The growing of tobacco, the manufacturing of cigarettes and most commonly, the smoking of cigarettes all negatively affects the environment around us.

Cigarette Butt Litter: An estimated 4.5 trillion (non-biodegradable) butts are discarded into the environment worldwide each year.1 It has been suggested that cigarette butts represent the biggest litter problem facing the world today.

It is estimated that 1 in 3 cigarettes end up as litter.2 Cigarette butts are not biodegradable and can take up to 12 years to break down. This is because the filter is composed of cellulose acetate1 which is a form of plastic and as most of us know, plastic does not decompose very easily and many forms of plastic can take up to 1,000 years to decompose.

Each year, tens of thousands of Canadians take part in the TD Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup. In 2007, cigarette butts were recorded as the number one item recovered during the annual cleanup. During the 2007 cleanup, volunteers collected over 270,000 cigarette butts from shores across the country.3

Water pollution: When cigarette butts are discarded on the ground, many of the toxic chemicals will leach out of the cigarette and will run in to the lakes and oceans. Cigarette butts can leach chemicals such as cadmium, lead and arsenic into our marine environment within an hour of contact with water.2 Cigarette butts have been found in the stomachs of fish, whales, birds and other marine animals which leads to ingestion of hazardous chemicals and digestive blockages. The pieces can get lodged in an animal’s intestinal tract or build up in its stomach, which can often lead to the animal’s death.4

Pets: Discarded butts can pose serious health concerns for pets, particularly in playground and park settings. It only takes two or three cigarette butts ingested by a small pet to seriously harm or kill them. Because there’s no nutritional value, when an animal eats a cigarette butt or several cigarette butts, they feel full and can actually starve to death.4,5

Deforestation: Each year nearly 600 million trees are destroyed to provide fuel to dry tobacco. Put in another way one tree is destroyed for every 300 cigarettes. Globally, tobacco curing requires 11.4 million tons of solid wood annually.6 Curing is the drying of the tobacco leaf which in most developing countries means that acres of trees are chopped down and burned in order to dry the tobacco leaf. In southern Africa alone an estimated 200,000 hectares of woodlands are cut annually to support tobacco farming. This accounts for 12% of deforestation in the region.7

Additionally, further deforestation is caused by the paper use associated with wrapping, packaging, and advertising cigarettes. A modern cigarette manufacturing machine will use more than six kilometres of paper per hour. Can you imagine how many trees that is?3,7

Production Waste: The tobacco manufacturing process produces liquid, solid, and airborne wastes. In 1995, the global tobacco industry produced an estimated 2262 million kilograms of manufacturing waste and 209 million kilograms of chemical waste.1

Why are cigarette butts the biggest littler problem? There are many reasons why cigarette butts are such a huge environmental issue. First of all, most people don’t think of them as litter. According to new survey findings from the TD Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup, only 18% of Canadians believe that cigarette butts are the most abundant form of litter in Canada. Everyone can admit to running after a dropped napkin because we didn’t want to litter and we all cringe at the thought of leaving a plastic bag on the ground. The harsh truth is that the worst type of trash is the one that Canadians toss without a second thought.3

Most Canadian provinces have very strict laws around smoking indoors, even limiting smoking in front of doorways and entrances in order to keep the smoke from entering the buildings. An unfortunate side effect of these policies is that cigarette butt litter dramatically increases where indoor smoking bans are implemented. Smokers are now spending most of their time smoking outdoors and tossing their butts away on the concrete rather than putting them in to a receptacle.

Seeing cigarette litter on your campus? Keep your campus green.

For more information, visit your Leave The Pack Behind Team on campus.


1 Novotny TE, Zhao F. 1999. Consumption and production waste: another externality of tobacco use. Tobacco Control, 8, 75-80

2 McLaren, W. (2005, October 20). Cigarette Butts: One Huge Problem, Two Solutions. Retrieved September 29, 2008, from TreeHugger

3 (2008, August 20). Plastic bags and cigarette butts: new data from TD Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup finds perception “butts” reality. [News Release]. Toronto: TD Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup.

4 Ebersole RS. 2000. Butt Heads on Beaches. Audubon 2000, 102.4:18

5 Eagle, G. (2008, July 17). Worst Kind of Litter? The Examiner, pp. A1

6 McLaren, W. (2007, February 27). Smoking: Environmental and Social Impacts. Retrieved October 2, 2008, from TreeHugger

7 (2005, November 21). Agriculture and Environment: Tobacco. Retrieved October 2, 2008, from the World Wildlife Foundation