No ifs or butts: Cigarette butts are very harmful for the environment

Cigarette stubs are the most littered material on the planet. Now, some serious initiatives seek to tackle the menace

March 11, 2022 01:03 pm | Updated 06:34 pm IST

Students of University of Petroleum and Energy Studies participate in a ButtRush campaign in Dehradun, December 2021. 

Students of University of Petroleum and Energy Studies participate in a ButtRush campaign in Dehradun, December 2021.  | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement 

An elderly man is sitting outside a tea shop in Mysuru, holding a cup of tea in one hand and a cigarette in another. With him are more people smoking cigarettes. Strewn on the ground around them is a sea of cigarette butts. The man, now done with his tea, flicks the stub onto the sand, stamps out the embers, smiles toothlessly, and walks away. What the man doesn’t know is that his cigarette butt has just been added to thousands more already buried deep in the earth.

“I keep a bin outside for cigarette stubs, but not many use them,” says Chandrashekhar, the owner of the tea stall. But the bin is nowhere in sight. Mukund, a customer interjects, “I don’t know what these butts contain, but I don’t think they are toxic.”

In truth, cigarette butts, the most littered item on the planet, are causing massive pollution to the environment: they contain plastic filters that never break down, and are a major source of microplastic pollution. According to the WHO, tobacco product waste contains over 7,000 toxic chemicals. Cellulose acetate, the major component of cigarette butts, along with the paper and rayon, pollute land and water. A report by Truth Initiative, a U.S.-based NGO, says that the chemicals that leach from a single cigarette butt can release enough toxins to kill 50% of saltwater and freshwater fish exposed to it for 96 hours.

Harm done

Not much has been done by the government to contain the pollution caused by cigarette butts, although in 2020 the National Green Tribunal passed an order directing the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) to lay down guidelines for their disposal. But the CPCB has not come up with any such guidelines.

Given the apathy, Nirit Datta, an environmentalist, decided to start a campaign across the country to spread awareness about what citizens could do to help the problem of pollution from stubs. Last year, Datta founded ButtRush, an initiative to collect cigarette butts and send them for recycling. A former IT professional, Datta has since quit his job and dedicated himself completely to the campaign.

Team Rotaract collected 19,000 cigarette butts in a 24-hour marathon in Navi Mumbai in January this year.

Team Rotaract collected 19,000 cigarette butts in a 24-hour marathon in Navi Mumbai in January this year. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

“Cigarette butts make their way into the oceans. They make their way into the earth. This is the water we drink, the food we eat,” he says. “I realised how little people know about the composition of cigarette butts. Many think they are made of cotton and are bio-degradable. Not many know they’re made of cellulose acetate, which is very harmful.”

Stubbed out

The first ButtRush took place in Kolkata in April 2021, and the response was phenomenal. Datta organised similar campaigns in Bengaluru, New Delhi and Mumbai, which received similar responses, and thousands of stubs littered carelessly across the country were collected.

Cigarette butts are mostly found near corporate offices, hospitals, colleges and tourist destinations, he says. Inspired by Datta, Ramiya R. Pillai, President, Rotaract Club of Navi Mumbai Industrial Area, joined hands. “When I led the campaign in Mumbai, I realised the problem is the lack of awareness,” says Pillai.

Toxic case

Says Datta: “The aim is not to keep on collecting butts from the streets but to travel to all States, collect a million butts, generate data, research, and analysis and come up with a sustainable model so that we can tackle the pollution at source. We hope to provide a template that can be followed by the government, both central and State.” But he adds that there are big tobacco lobbies involved, and they don’t want these movements against cigarettes.

 Grace Cycle, a start-up, has installed butt bins near the Puducherry railway station. 

Grace Cycle, a start-up, has installed butt bins near the Puducherry railway station.  | Photo Credit: M. Samraj

Datta’s mantra is to spread awareness. “We need to let people know what cigarette butts do to the environment, how they can be collected, and how they can be recycled. It is only then that we can reach a point where we can say our movement has had some kind of an impact.” He calls for civic authorities to install bins in public places and make regulations about disposal.

When Ramachandra, who works for Mysuru City Corporation, finds cigarette butts thrown carelessly on the streets every morning, he does not segregate them. “We just pick them up and throw them with everything else. They get dumped in the landfills,” he says. And therein lies the root of the problem.

Nita Ganguly, an environmentalist involved with the Climate Reality Project, says authorities should station dedicated bins across the country and the stubs should then be recycled. Nalini Mangwani, the founder of Butt Ballot, a Pune-based start-up that collects cigarette butts for recycling, has installed ‘ballots’ across public places in the city and ‘wallets’ or portable ashtrays to collect cigarette butts.

Cigarette butts are hard to recycle, says Mangwani. “They are very toxic. We mix them with solvents and then ethically dispose of them. We also use them to make items such as plastic ashtrays and pillows.”

The bottomline? As Mangwani says, “Smokers need to be made accountable.”

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