Cigarette filters are made of plastic. They’re a synthetic fibre called Cellulose Acetate and take well over a decade to break down. Paper-based, biodegradable filters are now available, but very few have made the switch.
Cigarette filters will break down eventually but only in the right conditions, so they’re consistently the most prominent source of ocean plastic, forming up to 38 per cent of waste found. Meanwhile, plastic straws get so much of our attention yet make up just 0.25 per cent of the 8 million tons of plastic that flows into our oceans every year.
Yet while efforts to reduce our plastic consumption have seen supermarkets, pubs, restaurants and countless festivals shun plastic straws altogether, nobody seems to care about cigarette filters.
Cigarette litter is full of harmful toxins, like arsenic, which leak into the water and harm marine life. Discarded filters are often found in the stomachs of fish, birds, whales and other marine creatures, who mistake them for food. Over 4.5 trillion cigarette butts make their way into the environment every year. They’re the most littered item in the world and probably at every festival too.
So why hasn’t everyone switched to biodegradable filters?
Why is there so little awareness of eco-friendly, paper-based alternatives? These are now available from major brands like Swan and Rizla and have been for a few years. They’re usually the same price, the only difference I notice is the colour and they’re easily available on Amazon and eBay, so why can’t you find them in the shops?
The vast majority of supermarket chains have stopped selling plastic straws in favour of paper. Paper straws are rubbish compared to plastic and cost loads more, but the switch will reduce overall consumption and have a positive environmental impact so it’s a good thing. So why won’t these same shops switch to, or at least offer the choice of, biodegradable filters?
Probably because of supply and demand. Public awareness of plastic pollution has probably never been higher, but perhaps it could be better focused. So start nagging your favourite supermarket on Twitter about how you’d like to see them selling biodegradable filters, then use WriteToThem to send your MP and MEPs a quick email on why we need policy change.
There’s an EU Directive calling for a 50 per cent reduction in plastic content by 2025 and 80 per cent by 2030, but you might feel as though this isn’t fast enough. You can go totally biodegradable today smoking rollies, but if you’re buying ready-made cigarettes you might be waiting a while.
Biodegradable filters are about the same price as plastic ones online, so if you’ve been buying your filters at corner shop prices you’ll probably save money making the switch. Swan and Rizla both sell brown paper filters in little boxes and OCB and RAW sell them in massive bags. Both still have some plastic in the packaging but at least it’s progress.
You still can’t throw them on the floor
Just because your cigarette butt is plastic-free doesn’t mean you can just throw it on the ground. It’s still toxic, and it’s still litter. People who’d never be seen littering food packaging casually drop cigarette butts without a second thought, and that’s probably why they’re the most littered item at pretty much every major event or music festival.
To put the scale of the problem in perspective, if a quarter of the 210,000 people at Glastonbury next year smoked ten cigarettes a day for the five days of the festival, that adds up to 2,625,000 cigarette butts. That’s a very rough estimate with made-up numbers but you get the idea; it adds up quick. Even small festivals could be tasked with collecting hundreds of thousands of fag-ends from their fields come Monday morning.
That’s probably why so many now give out portable ashtrays. Last year, Boomtown gave them out free from cigarette stalls then sent the collected butts off to be recycled into table tops and compost. These little padded pouches have room for around half a dozen butts, and while you can wash them out, they won’t last forever and they’re still made of plastic. Much better than throwing fag-ends on the floor but still not ideal.
Luckily, you can get metal pocket ashtrays online for a few quid. They’re easily washable and should last forever. Most metal ones also have a proper seal and promise to be totally smell-proof.
Of course, you could always just quit smoking. But until you do, here’s how you can keep puffing away while reducing your ecological impact:
- Don’t be a dick. Acknowledge that plastic cigarette filters are one of the most damaging types of litter on the planet, and tell your friends.
- Spend a few quid online to get enough biodegradable filters to last you for months.
- Don’t forget to pick up a decent metal pocket ashtray.
- Start nagging your local shops to get biodegradable filters in stock.
- Write to your MP and MEPs, show them this article and call for action!
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