Throughout September, volunteers across Canada hope to pick up and recycle more than 1 million cigarette butts.
The Butt Blitz, run by nonprofit A Greener Future, aims to reduce plastic pollution and the water quality impact from these common cast-offs.
Holy Smokes: Cigarette butts are the most-littered item in the world. About two-thirds of the 6 trillion cigarettes smoked each year end up in the environment.
As one of the last “socially acceptable” forms of littering, it's still not uncommon to see butts tossed out of car windows or ground out by a heel on the sidewalk. They're most often found in urban areas, parking lots or on the shoulder of the road.
But, these lightweight cigarette butts also end up far from these hotspots; they're blown into natural habitats by wind, or make their way to rivers and lakes by floating on top of water.
A Pain in the Butt: Although many smokers think the paper-wrapped butts will biodegrade, cigarette filters are actually plastic. They're made from cellulose acetate, which breaks into microplastic fibres.
Today, almost all smokers use filtered cigarettes because they prevent inhalation of some of the toxins. However, this means many of the harmful chemicals are left behind in the filters when butts are discarded.
When these butts end up in water, they release nicotine, arsenic, tar and even heavy metals. One littered cigarette butt can contaminate 1,000 litres of water!
Many of these chemicals are toxic to wildlife, including fish, mammals and birds. Studies have also found that many animals mistakenly eat cigarette butts, which makes them more likely to be exposed to toxins.
Unfortunately, due to their size, cigarette butts are often missed during public cleanup events and municipal staff efforts; many end up buried in sand, leaves or wedged in cracks in the pavement.
Silver Lining: Through this September's Butt Blitz, volunteers from 24 teams across Canada are aiming to pick up one million cigarette butts. That would surpass the almost 826,000 butts carefully collected during the spring 2021 Blitz.
These sources of toxins and microplastics will not only be removed from the environment – all butts collected during the Butt Blitz will also be recycled through TerraCycle's UNSMOKE cigarette recycling program.
Plastic components of the smoking waste will be melted down and made into industrial items like decks, floors, outdoor furniture and playground footings.
This free program is also open to individual smokers, who can send back extinguished smoking products, filters, rolling paper, ash and even plastic or foil packaging. Participating in TerraCycle programs also raises money for charity.
As co-ordinator of the Niagara Butt Blitz team, I’ve already picked up a couple of hundred discarded butts from local parks and neighbourhood streets.
With new cleanup initiatives and recycling programs, we can truly get our butts in gear and keep smoking waste out of the environment.
Kyra Simone is a NOTL-born nature lover with a master's degree in biology. In her spare time, she advocates for sustainable change, picks up garbage, makes recycled jewelry, and transforms furniture bound for the landfill. Email Keeping it Green at email@example.com.