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The Enormous Cigarette Butt Menace, And What We Could Do About It

Something needs to be done to stop our number one item of litter. But first, we need to understand the scope of the problem. It’s bigger than you could possibly imagine.

This image is made with 139,000 cigarette butts. That’s how many get thrown out every 15 seconds in the U.S.

The Texas Department of Transportation says 130 billion litter its highways every year. They’re the most common item found on beaches. Many billions sit leaching into the ground all over the world.

Why are butts more littered than other items? As a sometime-smoker, I’d say it was about getting rid of it quickly, and not having to worry about extinguishing it. People otherwise careful about waste will happily toss away a butt, especially when there aren’t alternatives.

The images here are one artist’s representation of the problem, commissioned by Legacy, an anti-smoking group. Chris Jordan, the artist, says:

It depicts 139,000 cigarette butts, equal to the number of cigarettes that are smoked and discarded every 15 seconds in the US. Cigarette butts are the number one littered item found in America’s public spaces including parks, beaches, waterways, and urban environments. This form of litter has far-reaching impacts on the environment: littered butts leach numerous toxic chemicals and carcinogens, contaminate water sources, and poison wildlife. The filters are made of cellulose acetate, a type of plastic that does not biodegrade.

There are some technical solutions—sort of. Ben Forman, a designer with Ideo Singapore came up with Cigg Seeds (seeds inside butts, designed to sprout). Then, there are biodegradable butts, and other forms of cigarette (rolled, electronic). And portable ashtrays, and other receptacles, including the DropPit Cigarette Butt Bin.

Julia Cartwright, Legacy’s senior VP of communications, says it will "take a village" to clean everything up:

Some in public health contend the tobacco industry should be responsible for clean ups, some think personal receptacles are the answer, some are looking to recycling or passing ordinances to fine smokers who litter their cigarette butts. It will take a village to shift social norms.