What’s the world’s most littered item? If you’re thinking plastic bottles, straws or junk food boxes, think again. It's actually the small - but potent - cigarette butt.

About 4.5 trillion cigarette filters are discarded every year, most containing cellulose acetate, a plastic that can take 10 years to biodegrade. Now a recent study, No More Butts, is shining a spotlight on the environmental threat posed by this pollution.

Discarded cigarette butts are seen lodged in a sidewalk grating in Warsaw, Poland June 2, 2017. Picture taken June 2, 2017. REUTERS/Bogdan Popescu - RC163B0DE5F0
4.5 trillion cigarette butts are discarded each year.
Image: REUTERS/Bogdan Popescu

According to the report, when these filters were introduced more than 60 years ago initial tests showed they helped to reduce tar from cigarettes. But it concludes that claims of the health benefits of plastic filters have since been dismissed.

What a waste

The link between smoking and health issues such as cancer and lung disease is well established, but the environmental damage caused by discarded plastic cigarette butts is less widely discussed.

 Impact on ryegrass and white clover when exposed to cigarette filters over 21 days.
Impact on ryegrass and white clover when exposed to cigarette filters over 21 days.
Image: Science Direct

During the time it takes for a butt to biodegrade, chemicals contained in discarded filters can damage the environment, impeding the growth of grass and plants. Researchers from the UK’s Anglia Ruskin University found the shoot length and germination of ryegrass and white clover was significantly reduced following exposure to cigarette filters.

Along with other waste plastics and litter, many discarded cigarette filters are carried by rivers into our oceans, where they can pollute marine ecosystems.

Image: Statista

During last year’s International Coastal Cleanup, more than 5.7 million cigarette butts were found floating on the surface of the world’s oceans - more than any other item. Food wrappers were the next most common, followed by straws and stirrers.

Single-use plastics including straws and coffee cups have attracted much media attention, prompting fast-food outlets and retailers to switch from plastic to paper. In the coming years, EU legislation will come into force restricting the use of these items, along with other disposable plastics such as plates, cutlery and food containers.


What is the World Economic Forum doing about plastic pollution?

More than 90% of plastic is never recycled, and a whopping 8 million metric tons of plastic waste are dumped into the oceans annually. At this rate, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans by 2050.

The Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP) is a collaboration between businesses, international donors, national and local governments, community groups and world-class experts seeking meaningful actions to beat plastic pollution.

In Ghana, for example, GPAP is working with technology giant SAP to create a group of more than 2,000 waste pickers and measuring the quantities and types of plastic that they collect. This data is then analysed alongside the prices that are paid throughout the value chain by buyers in Ghana and internationally.

It aims to show how businesses, communities and governments can redesign the global “take-make-dispose” economy as a circular one in which products and materials are redesigned, recovered and reused to reduce environmental impacts.

Read more in our impact story.

Although discarded cigarette butts litter the planet, they are not among the EU’s list of banned items and have largely escaped being labelled by the global media as a major pollutant.

But in the No More Butts report, researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and San Diego State University of Public Health called for a ban on the sale of filtered cigarettes to protect the environment.

Every year, around 13 million tonnes of plastic end up in our oceans, including single-use bottles, bags, food containers and a myriad of other items, according to the United Nations.