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Can You Guess the Most Littered Item in the World?

By Taylor Muckerman - Feb 16, 2014 at 1:30PM

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The typical risks discussed about this globally used product typically surround personal health. But what about the health of the environment?

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 (RAI), and Lorillard (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 (MO 0.27%) 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 (EMN 0.79%), 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.

Taylor Muckerman and The Motley Fool have no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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Stocks Mentioned

Altria Group, Inc. Stock Quote
Altria Group, Inc.
$44.22 (0.27%) $0.12
Reynolds American Inc. Stock Quote
Reynolds American Inc.
Lorillard, LLC Stock Quote
Lorillard, LLC
Eastman Chemical Company Stock Quote
Eastman Chemical Company
$95.88 (0.79%) $0.75

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