VANCOUVER - They're commonly flicked on sidewalks, discarded at bus stops and strewn outside buildings. They can also end up in the stomachs of fish, sea turtles and small children.
A single tossed cigarette butt may seem inconsequential, but researchers say more than five trillion waste butts accumulate in the global environment each year, resulting in degradation, costly cleanup and emergency response.
Tobacco manufacturers should be made responsible for the stinky, toxic mess, says a new study co-authored by a Simon Fraser University professor.
"Up to now, there's been the best efforts of public services and cleanup campaigns and recycling. And all these efforts are not working," said Kelley Lee, who holds a Canada Research Chair in global health.
"Our paper is really arguing we need to go upstream, we need to get to the source of the butts. That's the tobacco company."
The paper, published recently in the peer-reviewed journal Tobacco Control, sets out a regulatory scheme as model legislation for adoption by cities, provinces or countries. It was designed in collaboration with the Washington, D.C.-based Cigarette Butt Pollution Project.
The study found that one to two-thirds of butts from cigarettes are littered, buried in landfills or washed down storm drains.
In Vancouver, the fire department tackled 35 grass fires from haphazardly disposed butts over just one week last summer. A butt cleanup effort by 100 students, faculty and staff at Simon Fraser University last year collected 45 kilograms over just one hour.
The city of San Francisco spends about US$11 million annually on cleanups.
Butts are not biodegradable, as some people believe, Lee said. Cellulose acetate, a form of plastic, remains in the environment from 10 to 25 years. Discarded filters also collect toxic chemicals such as lead, arsenic and nicotine that leach into the earth.
The study proposes the tobacco industry take on the collection, transport, processing and safe disposal of butts, based on the principle of Extended Producer Responsibility, which would incorporate the environmental cost of butts into the price of cigarettes.
Other industries that produce hazardous consumer goods are already legally responsible in a patchwork of legislation across North America for dealing with paints, pesticide containers, fluorescent light bulbs and unused drugs.
The paper suggests companies take responsibility in various ways including taking on the cost of collecting, recycling or disposing butts, initiating cleanup programs and informing consumers about the environmental risks of tossing butts.
Australia and some countries in Europe are already considering legislative options for dealing with the environmental harms associated with butts, Lee said.
The health professor, who has been researching tobacco companies for nearly 20 years, believes the industry is making every attempt to avoid responsibility by shifting the onus to smokers. The researchers did not approach companies in order to maintain professional distance, Lee said, but noted they've brought similar proposals to manufacturers in the past.
"They're very resistant," she said. "They've funded anti-litter campaigns to try to divert attention away from their responsibility. They will push back very hard on this."
Requests for comment were made to four of the world's largest cigarette companies. Representatives for Imperial Tobacco Canada in Quebec and JTI-Macdonald Corp., in Toronto said their spokespeople were not immediately available.