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Why Tobacco Pollution Is a Serious Problem

Christopher Walsh   Tue 31 May 2022

Each year, the tobacco industry produces six trillion cigarettes that are consumed by one billion smokers around the world. These cigarettes contain filters mainly composed of microplastics known as cellulose acetate fibres. When improperly disposed of, cigarette butts break down through factors such as sunlight and moisture and release microplastics, heavy metals and many other chemicals, affecting the health of our ecosystems.

Cigarette butts are the most littered item worldwide, posing a major challenge to keeping the environment clean and free of plastic pollution. In our Cleaner Neighbourhoods Report for 2021/22, we reveal that Northern Ireland’s rural and urban areas are no exception, with 65% of all surveyed transects blighted by cigarette-related litter.

What’s more, when this form of plastic waste finally makes its way to our beaches and other waterways, it become a candidate for ingestion by marine wildlife. Research shows that the hazardous chemicals leached out by microplastics can cause long-term mortality in a range of species, including birds, fish, mammals, plants and reptiles. Inevitably, these microplastics enter the food chain and are associated with serious human-health impacts, including changes to genetics, brain development, respiration rates and more.

But while the negative implications of tobacco use on people is well documented, the detrimental impact it has on our climate is less understood. The tobacco industry has a whopping annual greenhouse gas emission of 84 megatons carbon dioxide equivalent. To produce tobacco on this colossal scale, there are round 200,000 hectares of biodiverse land cleared each year. And to compound matters, deforestation for tobacco plantations and tobacco curing leads to soil degradation and diminishes the ability of land to support the growth of any other crops or vegetation for regenerative and carbon-storing purposes.

Reducing the demand for tobacco is an integral piece of achieving the UN's Sustainable Development Goals. Beyond the compelling human health reasons for ditching cigarettes, it is imperative that we bin them appropriately for the sake of our fragile environment and climate.