When it became clear that smoking cigarettes was bad for a person’s health, the tobacco industry tried using filters as a way to alleviate some of the bad effects. Research revealed that filters didn’t really help, but companies went ahead and began using them as a marketing tool to protect their business. These filters – known commonly as cigarette butts – have become the top source of man-made pollution in the ocean.
The reason plastic straws have gotten so much attention in recent months is because plastic takes so long to decompose. That’s the reason cigarette filters are a problem, as well. They are made of cellulose acetate, a type of plastic that takes 10+ years to degrade completely. Every year, 5.6 trillion cigarettes are produced with a filter, and as ⅔ of them end up dumped into the ocean. Since 1986, the Ocean Conservancy sponsors yearly beach cleanups. Throughout those decades, cigarette butts became the most collected item, totaling more than plastic wrappers, bottle caps, bottles, containers, and eating utensils combined. The harmful chemicals found in the filters are present in 30% of sea turtles and 70% of seabirds.
What’s being done? A campaign headed by a lawmaker from California, a worldwide surfing organization, and an academic specializing in the tobacco industry is striving to get cigarette filters banned. You would think that it would be an easy thing to achieve, considering how the filters don’t make smoking any healthier, but the tobacco lobby is powerful. A proposed ban didn’t make it out of committee in California, while in New York, a senator failed to get legislation through that would give people rebates if they returned filters to redemption centers. Hopefully the much-publicized straw issue will draw people’s attention to ocean pollution in general, and they’ll realize that cigarette filters are causing even more problems.