Ocean pollution is a very serious issue, and one that seems to be cropping up a lot in the news at the moment. Often, when we hear the term "ocean pollution", it's straws, bottles, and other plastic garbage that come to mind — but there's another sort of waste that's far worse and has, so far, received far less attention than it warrants.
The spotlight is now on cigarette filters. At first, they may seem small and relatively harmless, but they can cause irreversible damage to oceans and wildlife in general, particularly in the numbers in which they're currently found. NBC News recently released a report citing data collected by NGO, Ocean Conservancy, which has been organising beach cleanups since 1986.
According to data collected by Ocean Conservancy, approximately 60 million cigarette filters have been collected since the 1980s — which massively exceeds the number of plastic bags, food wrappers, drinks bottles or straws cleaned up from our oceans.
Some beach-goers dispose of their filters directly on the beach. In other instances, butts are carried by the rain into rivers, then into other bodies of water, and finally into the sea, where they are carried back to the beaches by the waves.
While it isn't unusual for people to take liberties with nature to the point of treating everywhere as an ashtray, whether out of laziness or disregard, most smokers don't actually realise how extensive and harmful their behaviour can be — not just for the environment and for ecosystems, but for themselves as consumers too.
Why are cigarette filters more harmful than previously thought?
Most cigarette filters consist at least in part of cellulose acetate — which is, in itself, is a natural product. As a result, many people are under the false assumption that cigarette filters are biodegradable, which a study published by the BMJ had previously suggested. The truth, however, is that a plastic that isn't biodegradable often forms when the cellulose acetate is processed, so it actually takes a lot longer for cigarette filters to decay than it should.
Until the filters begin decaying, they also release all the pollutants they absorb from the smoke, including substances such as nicotine, arsenic, and lead. These, as well as the decaying plastic, are then consumed by various sea creatures and, if that isn't awful enough, they finally end up in our own food again.
Although the cigarette industry is looking at greener solutions for the production of cigarette filters and has been doing so for some time, smokers are being urged — both for the sake of nature as well as for public health — to consider whether it's really such a big effort to dispose of cigarette butts responsibly.