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

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

  • 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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    New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

    Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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    • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
    • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
    • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

    Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

    A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

    Rethinking humanity's origin story

    The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

    As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

    David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

    The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

    Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

    He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

    It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

    "Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

    Migrating out of Africa

    In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

    Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

    The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

    The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

    Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

    Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

    Did we head east or south of Eden?

    Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

    Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.