Science

No ifs or butts

Cigarette butts are the most common form of anthropogenic litter and constituted a significant proportion of the total litter in the world – but they often go unnoticed.   | Photo Credit: JONATHAN ALCORN

Extensive attention has been given to plastic bags and straws as pollutants to the environment and a hazard to the ecosystem. However, very few know about the adverse impact of cigarette filters, containing plastic, on the habitat.

Approximately, 5.7 trillion cigarettes were smoked globally in 2016. Cigarette butts are the most common form of anthropogenic litter and constitute a significant proportion of the total litter in the world – but they often go unnoticed. According to WHO, tossing a cigarette butt on the ground is one of the most acceptable forms of littering among smokers and non-smokers across the globe.

For long, most people were under the assumption that cigarette filters are biodegradable as they consist, at least in part, of cellulose acetate — which is, in itself, a natural product. The fact, however, is that cellulose acetate fibres used as the predominant filter material do not readily biodegrade due to the acetyl groups on the cellulose backbone, which itself can be degraded by various microorganisms employing cellulases. It may actually take as long as 10-15 years to decompose.

In many cases, these butts are dumped recklessly on pavements or dropped into the gutters, and in the majority of cases, eventually make their way to water bodies including lakes, rivers and oceans. These butts further break down into very harmful micro-plastics. Studies have also found that arsenic, nicotine, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and heavy metals are also released by cigarette butts in the environment.

The WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) calls for regulation of the contents of tobacco products and obligates Parties to protect the environment and people’s health in relation to agriculture and manufacturing of tobacco products. It also compels Parties to consider taking legislative action to address the issue of industry liability for the adverse consequences of tobacco use. India is a signatory to the treaty since 2004. Given these obligations, immediate attention to tobacco product waste contamination is needed.

Fortunately, India has been taking the legislative route to restrain manufacturers of smokeless tobacco products like gutkha, tobacco and pan masala from using plastic materials in the sachets under the Plastic Waste Management Rules 2016 to tackle the problem of plastic waste. However, cigarettes butts have escaped the regulations and have not been in the limelight due to lack of evidence of the adverse impact, both nationally and globally.

There may be some ‘low-hanging fruit’ that could be obtained: tobacco industries could be made accountable for funding awareness-raising campaigns against butts; adequate public ashtrays and waste collection units could be established; they could be liable to add labels to packets of filtered cigarettes, stating that they contain environment-damaging plastic and so on.

(Prof. Ravi Mehrotra is at the ICMR-National Institute of Cancer Prevention and Research and Dr. Prashant K. Singh is at WHO FCTC Global Knowledge Hub on Smokeless Tobacco in Noida)

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Printable version | Oct 25, 2020 3:06:37 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/science/no-ifs-or-butts/article26349412.ece

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