The #1 source of plastic trash in our oceans? Cigarette butts.

Ocean Conservancy has collected more than 60 million butts since the '80s.

man on beach with smoking cigarette in hand
Getty Images
  • Cigarette butts outnumber plastic bottles and grocery bags.
  • The toxins from the butts are eaten by fish, which end up back inside of our bodies.
  • Stricter legislation is the only way to solve this problem.


    Tossing a cigarette butt is ingrained to the point of seeming inconsequential. However, beyond the damage cigarettes wreak on our lungs, immune system, skin, and teeth, another harrowing reality is upon us: cigarette butts are the number one source of ocean waste, according to a new report by Ocean Conservancy, beating out food wrappers, plastic bottles and caps, and plastic bags.

    Since the '80s, more than 60 million butts have been cleaned up by the NGO, and the number currently in circulation in the ocean exceeds any other form of trash. It's a disastrous reality for the animals living in the seas. According to the Ocean Conservancy's report, ocean pollution does more than choke or entangle sea life:

    Scientists have found evidence that ocean plastic is linked with disease on coral reefs. Meanwhile, exposure to microplastics was shown to decrease the reproduction and population growth rate in zooplankton — animals that form the base of the ocean food chain.

    This said, many smokers are under the false assumption that a cigarette butt quickly degrades. However, the cellulose acetate — a form of plastic — it holds is not nearly as environmentally inconsequential as we thought. The process spirals downward from the moment you toss it on the ground. Indeed, a recent piece by Business Insider found that remnants of chucked cigarette butts are liable to turn up on our dinner tables.

    Until the filters begin decaying, they also release all the pollutants they absorb from the smoke, including substances such as nicotine, arsenic, and lead. These, as well as the decaying plastic, are then consumed by various sea creatures and, if that isn't awful enough, they finally end up in our own food again.

    Movements around the world have sprung up to combat our plastic problem, including the banning of plastic bags — California has experienced a 72 percent drop in litter — and concerted efforts to reduce our usage of plastic bottles. High taxation of cigarettes has a curbing effect, and more nations are requiring harsher warnings on packaging. Yet until fees for the improper disposal of cigarette butts are legislated, it will be difficult to achieve significant improvement from this problem.

    Getty Images

    However, given that many people equate "freedom" with personal proclivities that are the opposite of free — there is nothing liberating about chronic and deadly addictions — the public outcries that are sure to follow any meaningful legislation will likely drown out potential gains.

    As for now, those who volunteer for beach clean-ups, such as those the Conservancy coordinates, are — cigarette butt by cigarette butt — curbing ocean pollution and its effects on the environment. While laudable, eventually we'll realize their efforts are not enough. The only way this widespread problem can significantly reduced is through enforced regulations.

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