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Can You Guess the Most Littered Item in the World?

In 2011, there were approximately 293 billion cigarettes sold in the United States. Anyone else as shocked as I am? To put that into perspective, at the end of 2011, there were 312.8 million people living here. Simple math concludes that the average American consumed 937 cigarettes -- or 47 packs -- that year. Regardless of whether you helped contribute, this staggering figure does harm to more than our lungs.

What's even more shocking is that nearly 85% of these cigarettes came from just three companies: Phillip Morris USA, Reynolds American (NYSE: RAI  ) , and Lorillard (NYSE: LO.DL  ) . Lately, however, electronic cigarettes have started to become a much bigger part of the picture for these titans of industry. E-cigarette sales grew 38% at Lorillard this past quarter and accounted for 3% of sales. Altria Group's (NYSE: MO  ) Phillip Morris, and Reynolds American, haven't made quite as big of a push, but both are intent on catching up. Despite doubts that e-cigarettes are a "healthy" alternative to traditional rolled tobacco offerings, one thing is for certain: They will be better for the environment. 

Littering as a social norm
As a result of such habitual use, nearly 4.5 trillion cigarette butts are casually discarded around the world each year, making cigarette butts the most globally littered item. Simply flicking the cigarette aside has become as involuntary an activity as breathing for most smokers. Even though we frown on littering, somehow this action has become part of everyday life.

Even in places that you might associate with cleanliness and purity, like the beach, are more widely affected than I would have guessed. In 2008, The Ocean Conservancy discovered that 28% of "the total amount of debris collected in their 2008 international coastal cleanup" was composed of cigarette materials. As with most other forms of littering, there are very real and very harmful negative externalities associated with this simple motor skill. While it may be hard to prove, it's certainly not difficult to imagine that 4.5 trillion casually discarded cigarette butts have led to the death or injury of millions of birds, fish, and other animals each year. 

What can be definitively be shown is that these slow-degrading cylinders of cellulose acetate leave their toxic mark on the environments that constitute their final resting places. Thankfully, cities are coming to grips with this and are planning to make it more of a public issue.

Taking lessons from dog poop
It wasn't long ago when letting your dog defecate and simply walking away was "acceptable". Then, cities and communities started providing dog owners with conveniently placed doggy bags and receptacles for the excrement. Now, cities like Vancouver, British Columbia, are taking similar steps to help make the discarding of cigarette butts more convenient.

While it's just a pilot program, 110 receptacles will be placed around the city and will be labeled "Butt Bins." The city will then empty these bins and take the contents to an organization called United We Can. Back in November, it was believed that this system would be the first of its kind in the world. Following their disposal, TerraCanada, a recycling organization, will turn the butts into a "variety of industrial products, such as plastic pallets."

You might be wondering if there is a future for a process like this. Well, by all accounts, if the butts can be recycled in an economically feasible way, the answer is most likely, yes. A major producer of cellulosic acetate is Eastman Chemical Company (NYSE: EMN  ) , which produces the compound under the name Tenite. It considers the cellulosic plastics to be an "excellent balance of properties" like "toughness, hardness, strength, surface gloss, clarity, chemical resistance, and warmth to the touch." 

No butts about it
With Vancouver setting the stage, it's time for other cities to enter stage right. The growth of e-cigarettes -- as long as it stems from traditional smokers crossing over -- will certainly chip away at this issue, but the triumvirate of "reduce, reuse, recycle" must all be represented in order to address this situation properly. Perhaps a company like Eastman Chemical could find a reason to get involved, perhaps leading to a more successful Tenite business unit. Regardless of how it happens, Vancouver is likely on the right track.

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Read/Post Comments (23) | Recommend This Article (24)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

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  • Report this Comment On February 16, 2014, at 1:55 PM, Dave5309 wrote:

    Funny Story: I was ticketed once (20 years ago) for throwing a cigarette butt on the street. I fought it in court. I showed the judge that a cigarette butt is made up of pulp paper, tobacco, ash and cotton. It is therefore no more littering then tossing an apple core, or banana peel. The judge agreed that cigarette butts are not litter, and tossed the charges.

  • Report this Comment On February 17, 2014, at 12:22 AM, CATPUBES wrote:


  • Report this Comment On February 17, 2014, at 1:21 AM, SJtR wrote:

    I love how its so fashionable to jump on the anti smoking bandwagon because it makes others feel important to dictate to others what they can and cannot do. I have seen way to many times a devout Non-smoker would pick out ciggie butts from an ashtray, then toss them around places such as gas pumps or something to make it look like smokers were the problem. Not to mention this is discrimination against smokers, because in all honesty I wish I had a nickle for every time a tobacco chewer would be sitting next to me at a restaurant and ask the waitress for another glass to spit in. Im more worried about getting aids or hepatitis but I dont complain about them acting all smug and self righteous like these anti smoking nuts. And the kicker is, I dont even smoke myself, but I believe in standing up for other peoples rights.

  • Report this Comment On February 17, 2014, at 2:03 AM, Vitabrits wrote:

    @ Dave

    Unless it was a lit cigarette, then you are correct. How many preventable fires have happened because someone lit up, fell asleep and then started a fire.

  • Report this Comment On February 17, 2014, at 6:00 AM, Riggerwo wrote:

    Smoking..filthy, nasty, smelly, dangerous, addiction....the only thing chewing tobacco....and yes cigg butts are trash...I do not smoke..never have....and I agree it is a persons right to smoke if they long as I and other non smokers do not have to breath in the smoke in public places I say let them kill themselves....but in the privacy of their own homes..or on the roof....

  • Report this Comment On February 17, 2014, at 9:13 AM, Fredf wrote:

    This is a disgusting habit and more so when they throw their trash outside. Leave it in your car!

  • Report this Comment On February 17, 2014, at 9:36 AM, scoobydoo12321 wrote:

    …everyone's jumping on the bandwagon about how smoking is bad yet legalizing marijuana is okay?

    I don't see the difference. You can't pick and choose an item you are going to smoke.

  • Report this Comment On February 17, 2014, at 10:38 AM, kapitalkat wrote:

    The article missed the mark because it failed to disclose that cigarette butts are more than litter - they are TOXIC WASTE.

    Among other issues:

    > Cigarette butts are NOT biodegradable

    > One cigarette butt dropped into a one-liter fish tank kills half the fish in it.

    > The whole life cycle of a cigarette butt is harmful to the environment.

    > The toxic chemicals in cigarette butts are a threat to our aquatic ecosystems

    > The toxic substances (chemicals, carcinogens) that leach out are highly toxic to freshwater micro-organisms and pollute the environment..

    > They’re poisonous to wildlife.

    > They contaminate water sources, including water tables.

    > They’re the number one littered item on US roadways and the number one item found on beaches and in waterways worldwide.

  • Report this Comment On February 17, 2014, at 11:51 AM, metimoteo wrote:

    I couldn't agree more with kapitalkat. Smoking is a vile habit and its use should be restricted everywhere. Nobody has the right to smoke. Too many smokers think they can smoke anywhere they please and they think nothing of discarding their toxic waste. Tobacco products, especially cigarettes, should be prohibited in ALL places of public accommodation, including beaches, parks, trails, streets, sidewalks, etc.

  • Report this Comment On February 17, 2014, at 11:58 AM, magmash wrote:

    I run a lawn care service and have one part time employee whose primary employ,ment is the disposal of discarded cigarette butts. It doesn't matter that there are receptacles by all exits exclusively for disposing of cigarette butts; people will habitually throw them on the ground. Along with chewing gum!!!

  • Report this Comment On February 17, 2014, at 12:16 PM, blaine58 wrote:

    @metimoteo, Nobody has the right to smoke? How about nobody has the right to drive a car because it pollutes the air. Do you think for one minute that the air you inhale in any major city is good for you?

    Maybe we should close down all the plants that produce power by burning coal. Then we could all burn firewood to warm our homes and power our steam powered automobiles.(Oh wait....)

    While you are taking away a persons right to chose why don't we ban alcohol while we are at it. Call Colorado and tell them sorry, we changed our minds regards pot.

    Another suggestion would be ban all plastic water bottles that people seem to discard on every beach or state park I've ever visited.

    People should not smoke in areas where it offends others but quit being such a radical and removing the power for individuals to choose their lifestyle.

  • Report this Comment On February 17, 2014, at 12:54 PM, smark wrote:

    Hooray for providing statistics and proof that cigarette butts are polluting our world. Want to smoke? Smoke outside, in your car, in your house, smoke all you want but please discard your butts in a container and not on the road, sidewalk, parking lot, trails and paths. If you have enough time to purchase, light and smoke a cigarette, then you have time to dispose of the butt properly.

    This is not a constitutional rights issue, it's about doing the right thing.

  • Report this Comment On February 17, 2014, at 1:22 PM, Think wrote:

    I used to live between two neighbors that both smoked. They would meet on the sidewalk in front of my house to chat. Of course, they would throw their butts down in my yard. I had to pick them up myself. Even though I thought they were very inconsiderate, I didn't want to make enemies out of my closest neighbors. Please smokers think about where you are discarding your butts.

  • Report this Comment On February 17, 2014, at 1:43 PM, HalfEvil wrote:

    I can't count the times that I've been driving behind some fool who throws their cigarette butt out the window and it hits my car. I got so tired of it that the last time it happened, I accelerated and rammed the back end of the person's car causing them to go off the road and down an embankment. That'll teach them.

  • Report this Comment On February 17, 2014, at 1:49 PM, HenryHayne wrote:

    Cigarette butts will degrade like other natural products, ugly, but not damaging. It is litter, but nature is not bothered.

  • Report this Comment On February 17, 2014, at 1:49 PM, steve1002 wrote:

    I'm not anti-smoking. I say let people smoke all they want. But... keep the damned smoke away from me, and pick up your damned cigarette butts.

  • Report this Comment On February 17, 2014, at 1:50 PM, SpinningMedia wrote:

    The "in your face" and holier than thou reactionaries are typical in their comments. It won't be long before smokers are hosed with ink in squirt guns (remember the fur reactionaries?). Then again maybe not since its not PC to have squirt guns these days.

    The truth is most smokers have changed how they indulge in their addiction and are careful not to let their habit disturb non smokers. I smoke, and I don't even smoke in my own house as a courtesy to to the rest of my family and friends. Many people don't even know that I smoke at all.

    Get off your high horses.

  • Report this Comment On February 17, 2014, at 1:56 PM, march52006 wrote:

    While I don't smoke,never have never will I appreciate all the taxes smokers pay. If they all quit tomorrow all the state and federal taxes they pay will no doubt be heaped on the backs of non smokers to keep the revenue rolling in.So every now and then I buy a pack of cigs and throw them away just so I pay a minimal tax which will be far less than the one that will be doled out.

  • Report this Comment On February 17, 2014, at 2:24 PM, smokintea wrote:

    And I thought it'd be plastic grocery bags.....or plastic bottles, WOW!

  • Report this Comment On February 17, 2014, at 2:39 PM, litterhater wrote:

    Cigarette litter prevention gets no respect!

    Here's what one city and a department of transportation in California did and the results are encouraging:

  • Report this Comment On February 17, 2014, at 4:11 PM, ChristineRoseL wrote:

    Cigarette butts are made primarily from cellulose, which is a plastic (derived from wood). It does not biodegrade, which is why you see the stupid things everywhere. But the kicker is that they don't have to disclose what's in the things. You shouldn't have to think much to convince yourself that they are not cotton, and they do not biodegrade.

  • Report this Comment On February 18, 2014, at 3:08 AM, kapitalkat wrote:

    More tobacco factoids:

    > The tobacco plant - all parts (roots, stems and leaves) is a toxic plant. The harvested material is made even more toxic when the tobacco companies add their own special "brew" to the marketed product.

    > More than 7000 toxic chemicals have been identified in cigarettes and cigarette smoke

    > Tobacco damages the health of smokers and anyone else within breathing or fetal proximity.

    > Tobacco is the leading cause of preventable disease on the planet and is more addictive than heroin. If you smoke - you are an addict.

    > Girls are more likely to quit smoking when informed that their habit will age them prematurely and less so when informed of the health risks

    > Cigarettes are a toxic and are damaging to the environment

    > Tobacco poses a significant drain on the economy

    > The international marketing of cigarettes has been used as a political tool designed to coerce trade policies favorable to western countries.

    > A constitutional "right" to smoke DOES NOT EXIST

  • Report this Comment On February 18, 2014, at 4:22 AM, adrianangel wrote:

    I thought it was going to be beer cans :)

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Taylor Muckerman

Taylor is an Associate GM in our Fool International operations. Prior to that he covered all things Energy + Materials as an analyst. Over the years, he has built an investing skill set to rely on when evaluating companies inside and out. While at the Fool, he has made appearances on CNBC and Fox Business. In addition, he completed his MBA at the University of Maryland and will sit for the Level II CFA Exam.

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