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The World's Most Popular Trash

Updated on December 13, 2016
Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran is a writer & former newspaper reporter/editor who traveled the world as a soldier's better half. Her works are on Amazon.


No if, ands, or buts about it :

A segment of our population will always smoke. This group is a specific demographic with unique characteristics that are hard to identify without judgement.

Every responsible organization on the planet has reported the dangers of smoking but smokers persist. Fine. It's a free country. If you are a person of legal age, yes, society can restrict your smoking in a variety of ways (that we have probably just about exhausted) but nobody can force you to stop lighting up. But do you think we could agree that cigarette butts dropped on the ground are litter?

They do not biodegrade. They collect. Piles of them line our roadways, our parking lots, and just about any place the general public is allowed. Did you notice the top picture on this hub? Where do you think that mess comes from?

The Texas Department of Transportation estimates 130 million cigarette butts will be tossed out in that state this year alone. Worldwide, 5.6 trillion filtered cigarettes are smoked annually, resulting in 1.7 billion pounds of cigarette butt litter that is left on sidewalks, beaches, nature trails, and other public places every single day.

What makes this kind of litter so much more insidious than other paper products is the fact that cigarette filters are not biodegradable. Nearly all cigarette filters are composed of a bundle of 12,000 plastic-like cellulose acetate fibers. Cellulose acetate can take years, in some cases up to fifteen, for ultraviolet light to cause fibers to decay into a plastic powder that can't be seen. When that finally does happen, that powder releases toxins, not a product the environment can reuse, but a substance that will do to our ground water, streams, rivers and lakes something similar to what smoking in the first place does to smokers' lungs. Studies conducted by Clean Virginia Waterways have shown tiny bits of tobacco that are invariably left attached cigarette filters carry more toxins than the filters do themselves.

Prior to 1954, most cigarettes were non-filtered. In the mid-1950s, sales of filtered cigarettes increased dramatically as the cause-effect relationship between smoking and cancer was reported extensively in the press. Before these reports, in 1950, sales of filtered cigarettes in the US were 1.5 percent of all cigarette sales. Now, more than 97 percent of cigarettes sold in the U .S. have filters. This statistic prompts congratulations to smokers who have become somewhat more concerned about their own health. But the result for the rest of us is an enormous increase in cigarette litter left behind by smokers who have yet to become as concerned about their own neighborhoods, workplaces, and leisure destinations.

Discarded cigarette butts also pose a significant threat to our environment in terms of fire. According to the National Fire Protection Agency, upwards of 90,000 fires every year in the United States are caused by cigarettes. Cigarette-induced fires claim hundreds of lives in the United States each year, and injure thousands more, not to mention the millions of dollars that go up in smoke in property damage.

The recent bans on indoor smoking have been blamed for the increase in cigarette butt deposition. In Australia, authorities state cigarette butts account for fifty percent of all litter, a trend that the executive director of Keep Australia Clean blames partly on indoor no-smoking policies. The World Health Organization estimates that 1.1 billion people in the world smoke —that is one third of all people on earth over the age of 15. Combine that estimation with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) statistic showing global tobacco consumption more than doubling in the last 30 years, reaching its height in 1997, this is a problem that is not going away any time soon. Couldn't smokers just make more of an effort the find a trash can when they finish their smoke? Remember, these are the remaining consumers who have ignored every medical expert on the planet concerning their own lives. How much success do you think we will have trying to change their behavior based on the needs of others?

This is not to say that behaviors have not changed. Many smokers today will not smoke in their own homes or vehicles. Many will no longer smoke around children, even out of doors. When is the last time you saw a pregnant woman (God forbid) smoking? Changes have taken place for the benefit of all of us, specifically resulting from the avalanche of information that has been learned about second-hand smoke. This issue is, hopefully, one of the next steps. Information like the following from Kathleen M. Register, an Underwater Naturalist with the Bulletin of the American Littoral Society, may be what it takes to begin to make a difference.

The 470 billion cigarettes smoked in the United States in 1998 translates to a total of 176,250,000 pounds of discarded butts in one year in the United States alone. The filters from 5.608 trillion cigarettes (approximate world production) would weigh more than 2.1 billion pounds. This figure does not include the weight of the tobacco still attached to the filter, or the packaging, matches, disposable lighters, and other "collateral" waste that is generated by smoking.

According to Keep America Beautiful, Americans are smoking fewer cigarettes than ever before, yet cigarette butts continue to be the most commonly littered item in the United States and around the world today.

People once smoked in elevators, in enclosed cars full of children, in resturants where other people were eating, in movie theaters, in hospital waiting rooms. Habits can be changed. It takes time. It may also take as many pieces of information on the subject as there are cigarette butts on the ground.


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    • Kathleen Cochran profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathleen Cochran 

      3 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      It is hard not to find parallels between a mentality that routinely risks their own health and one that has no regard for the planet on which they live. But - facts are facts. Thanks for commenting.

    • rebeccamealey profile image

      Rebecca Mealey 

      3 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      Great article! You hit the nail on the head with the title, too. The place I hate seeing cigarette butts the most is on a sandy white beach.

    • Kathleen Cochran profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathleen Cochran 

      4 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Thanks for the recent responses. I was surprised by the research I found and what a worldwide problem this "trash" actually is. Butts are not biodegradeable, and if people can't seem to understand what they are doing to their health, at least they could understand that butts are trash.

    • JayeWisdom profile image

      Jaye Denman 

      4 years ago from Deep South, USA

      I've never smoked, but lived and worked around others addicted to cigarettes during the decades when people were allowed to smoke anywhere with impunity (and most of them didn't ask if anyone minded.) I was so glad when smoking in the workplace was 'outlawed', and then later, when smoking in many public places became verboten.

      Every time I hear someone addicted to the noxious 'cancer sticks' say, "Well, we've all got to die from something," as he or she takes a puff, I want to grab that cigarette and flush it down a toilet! I'm sure smoking as an addiction is difficult to break, but it's certainly not impossible since so many have managed to do it. It does take resolve to do so.

      Every day I pick up and dispose of cigarette butts that are tossed into the street that runs alongside my house (including directly into my driveway) by smokers driving or walking by. I hate the sight of a cigarette in any form--in its unlit state, hanging out of someone's mouth with smoke curling from the end or lying on the ground as a smoked-to-the-last-draw butt.

      I've known of people suffering and dying of emphysema (and it's a horrible way to die), tethered to portable oxygen tanks, yet still craving another smoke. As far as I'm concerned, anyone who raises tobacco, manufactures cigarettes or even sells them has a lot for which to answer! As litter, countless cigarette butts are disgusting and a dreadful blight on our country. As a killer, cigarettes are murdering more people every year than heroin.

      Voted Up+++ and shared


    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 

      4 years ago from Oakley, CA

      Very well put! I could not have said it better myself. I don't see how to convince folks unconcerned about their own health to give a rat's behind about the environment or anyone else's health. They tend to "pooh-pooh" it all.

      I do know, however, that there are at least a FEW responsible smokers, (if you'll forgive the apparent oxymoron), who have the courtesy to "field strip" their cigarette butts by extinguishing the cigarette, then putting the filter in their pocket until they can find a trash can.

      My husband is an ex-smoker, and he would do this if we were someplace like the beach. He made several attempts to quit, and finally managed it 3-1/2 years ago. His motivation? A grandson was born, and he decided he wanted to be around to see the little guy grow up.

      It is a tough addiction, I know from watching it second-hand. But whether it's cigarette butts, or paper litter, I have zero tolerance for litterbugs!

    • sallybea profile image

      Sally Gulbrandsen 

      4 years ago from Norfolk

      I definitely take exception to cigarette buts. The problem is exacerbated because people are smoking on the streets because they can no longer smoke indoors. I also take exception to bubble-gum being spat out onto all of our city streets, add the dog poop and we really do have a society which does not have any concept of how much their disgusting habits affect everyone in our Society.

    • Kathleen Cochran profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathleen Cochran 

      5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Audrey, Kathryn and rose-the-planner, Welcome to my hubs and thanks for commenting on this one. I think everybody feels strongly about this issue except those who are creating it. Most of those wouldn't pause to read a hub like this but I'll keep recycling this one in hopes it makes a dent.

    • rose-the planner profile image

      rose-the planner 

      5 years ago from Toronto, Ontario-Canada

      A very worthwhile and insightful article. I take exception to litter in general but nothing annoys me more than seeing piles of cigarette buts everywhere. The fact that they are not biodegradable is even more disgusting! Thank you for sharing. (Voted Up) -Rose

    • Kathryn Stratford profile image


      5 years ago from Manchester, Connecticut

      I really hate seeing cigarette butts all over the place, too. It looks disgusting, and I think it is irresponsible of them to toss them out like that.

      When I worked at a store in a Virginia shopping plaza several years ago, there was one Summer that several fires started because people dropped their butts on mulch that was really dry. I saw Best Buy employees putting the fire out once, and a few days later the store I worked at had to do the same. The culprits didn't stick around (maybe they didn't realize it would happen).

      Thanks for sharing this useful article with us. It was nice to hear about the many reasons why this kind of littering is dangerous.

      Voted up and sharing.

      Have a great night.

      ~ Kathryn

    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 

      5 years ago from California

      I so hate seeing cigarette butts everywhere! Thank you for this!

    • Kathleen Cochran profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathleen Cochran 

      6 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Thanks phdast7 and sashas89 - I circulate this one every so often because people don't even think when they do this.

    • sashas89 profile image


      6 years ago from A Series of Tubes

      Thankfully, cigarette smoking is becoming less popular with each year. My 12 year old nephew HATES the sight of people smoking. Makes me feel good about the future.

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 

      6 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Kathleen -- This is just as important an article and message as it was three months ago. Many of us feel like "protecting the environment" or "going green" are these big difficult programs and decisions that someone else should take on or handle.

      But....often these goals can be accomplished by the small every day actions and decisions of ordinary people. Your hub illustrates this truth beautifully. Voted UP+++ and Sharing.

    • Kathleen Cochran profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathleen Cochran 

      6 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      BlissfulWriter: Thanks for commenting and making a good point. Welcome to my hubs.

    • BlissfulWriter profile image


      6 years ago

      Plastics also presents another big trash problem that is also not biodegradeable.

    • Kathleen Cochran profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathleen Cochran 

      6 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Mr. Happy: Thanks for being a responsible smoker. But now that so many of us like you, we're going to have to get you to quit so we keep you around as long as possible.

      Born2Care2001: Congratulations on doing a very difficult good thing. I agree about the butts in politics!

      Angela: Welcome to my hubs. Hope you enjoy them. Thanks for commenting.

    • Angela Brummer profile image

      Angela Brummer 

      6 years ago from Lincoln, Nebraska

      I don't know why it is found exceptable to smokers to toss down their butt!

    • Born2care2001 profile image

      Rev Bruce S Noll HMN 

      6 years ago from Asheville NC

      Very well done Kathleen!

      I quit smoking in 1993 after 34 years of a pack and a half a day habit. I've always said I could smoke again today because I enjoyed some of the habit. I just never wanted to have to quit again!!!

      Now, after seeing the information in your hub, I would be mortified at the thought of contributing further to the destruction of the planet.

      If we could only find something constructive to do with turn the filters into the government for recycling.

      Wait a minute; on second thought we already have enough butts in politics!

      Great hub! It makes me happy I made the choice to quit!

    • Mr. Happy profile image

      Mr. Happy 

      6 years ago from Toronto, Canada

      "In Australia, authorities state cigarette butts account for fifty percent of all litter" - That's pretty disgusting ... and I am a smoker.

      I am aware of my cigarette butts. I know that filters do not desintegrate so, I carry them with me. Cigarette packs have a plastic around them, I use that to put butts away and sometimes I'll just put them in the pack until I make it to a garbage - no big deal.

      I also do not smoke with children around. Children tend to like this wolf and by no means would I want them looking up to someone and seeing smoking as being something to do in the future. On the other hand though, smoking is starting to be prohibited even in public places ... hard to be a smoker nowadays. Will I have to go climb a tree and hide in between the branches up high to have a smoke? I can do that too I guess.

      Thanks for bringing awareness to the litter which cigarette butts produce. I do believe smokers should be responsible with their habit, especially when it can affect our environment in so many negative ways.

      All the best!

    • Kathleen Cochran profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathleen Cochran 

      6 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Thanks for the support. Change in this area is long overdue. Fines would be a move in the right direction.

    • RTalloni profile image


      6 years ago from the short journey

      So glad to see this research posted--thanks! Armed with information perhaps people can work together to effect change. Hopefully it will be a common thing to see fines for littering being applied to smokers since the facts prove it is a serious problem.

    • Kathleen Cochran profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathleen Cochran 

      6 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      phdast7: As usual, thanks for being such a loyal student of my work. For this hub, there was so much research on the subject, it even surprised me. Every time I see someone flick a butt out a car window I want to honk at them. Probably shouldn't do that, but once you see the facts on the subject it makes you aware of how serious the problem is. Thanks for the comments.

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 

      6 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Kathleen - An important essay and very well written. I knew cigarettes butts were a problem, but I had no idea how big an environmental problem they were. I also didn't know that when they finally degrade that toxins were released into the environment. Such a little thing multiplied by millions users becomes such a huge problem. Thank you for bringing this to our attention. This is an very well written and researched Hub. Sharing.

    • Kathleen Cochran profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathleen Cochran 

      6 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Thanks so much for your interest and for the link. Interesting solution. It's one of those "if we can put a man on the moon" problems that begs a solution!

    • Winsome profile image


      6 years ago from Southern California by way of Texas

      Hi KC, I read your limit campaign advertising, your "promiscuous hubbing" and this one to get to know your writing and I like the way you think. I had no idea that butts were so pernicious. You might enjoy this guy's goal:

      Volunteers in NY are storing theirs on Staten Island until someone comes up with a viable recycling program. It gives new meaning to the harbor's welcome--"Give me your tired, your poor, the wretched refuse of your teaming shores (and highways where it makes up 38% of roadside litter) your huddled masses yearning to be recycled." My question is: Why don't they just come up with a biodegradable filter? =:)


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