Dec 8th, 2021, 05:55 AM

Smoke, Trash & Butts - Sustainable Factors of Smoking

By Madita Schrott
Photo by Pawel Czerwinski on Unsplash
How the French government is trying to decrease cigarette trash

Whether in the hand of a person or ditched on the pavement, the sight of a cigarette is not a rare one in French streets. Over a third of the population, that is 15 years or older, smokes and as a result, an estimated 23,5 billion cigarette butts are being tossed on the streets every year. Aiming, to lower the environmental impact of littered cigarettes, the French government announced in August it will hold tobacco companies liable for tossed away cigarette butts, under its anti-waste law that was introduced last year. 

A single cigarette releases at least 1,39 grams of CO2, taking up 42 times the size of a cigarette itself in the atmosphere. However, cigarettes can cause even greater harm if they are not disposed of correctly. The toxic chemicals that are released from a smoked cigarette stay behind in the filter, which in turn contaminates the water and soil it comes in contact with. Cigarette filters are generally made of plastic and take a decade to decay. A single cigarette can pollute hundreds of liters of water, in fact, it pollutes enough to kill a fish sharing a one-liter jar with it. On top of that, fish often die of poisoning because they mistake cigarette butts with food. This is not surprising, seeing that 40% of improperly disposed cigarettes end up on beaches, in forests, and in natural waters. 

In Paris alone, 350 tons of cigarette butts are picked up from the streets yearly. That equals the mass of about 200 medium-sized cars. The French environmental ministry wants the number of thrown-out cigarettes to decrease by 40% within the next six years and is making the cigarette manufacturers responsible for it. The Ecology Minister ​​Barbara Pompili thinks it only makes sense for “manufacturers to pay for the waste produced, rather than our taxes”. The tobacco industry is planning to contribute €80 million annually to keep streets and nature clean from irresponsibly discarded cigarettes. Their main approaches will be installing additional trash cans in cities, handing out portable ashtrays, and launching an educational campaign. “Pollution is major, so the commitments cannot be minor”, another official of the ministry said. 

So, what is the reason for such huge amounts of cigarette waste? Surely, there must be a reason people don't bother to throw away their waste in one of Paris’ 30,000 trash cans? I asked ten AUP smokers about their thoughts: “Because there are many many people that just throw them, even here now, and there's a trashcan right there”, said Eleanora Marcone, 20, who studies International Comparative Politics. We’re standing at the social heart of AUP: the Amex’s terrace, mainly visited by our University’s smokers. Stepped on cigarettes are neighboring our feet, even though the closest trash can is no more than three meters away from us. “You can’t force anyone to throw out their cigarettes or tell them what to do. Even if you tell them, I don’t think it will change much”, noted Bettina Levente. She thinks portable ashtrays “might be our best bet”. Another 19-year-old History, Law and Society major however thinks that it might not be so easy to convince local smokers of the idea: “I feel like smoking is such a big tradition that people are not aware of the environmental effects.” Anthony Coletta, 21, who also majors in ICP agrees that lighting a cigarette is not being second-guessed, explaining smokers as “just being slaves to their immediate desires”, but disagrees that portable ashtrays would help the problem. “I think of that the same way as I think of them putting these scary pictures on the packaging, I don’t think they work. We already have enough things to put in our pockets.” Instead, he thinks people should be educated on the matter.

“What needs to be done is that they need to enforce this idea in people’s minds that they need to be more conscious of this.” He tries to not throw his butts on the ground, conveniently doesn’t even use filters a lot of the time. “A cigarette butt takes like ten years to decompose. So throwing that on the ground, there’s some guilt that goes with it.” Throwing a cigarette on the ground can be punished with a fine of €68, but this law is rarely being enforced.“I see cops do it all the time”, criticizes 24-year-old Art History major Carlos Madelaire. He thinks additional trash cans, maybe specifically for smokers and at an easy-to-throw level would be a good start “because now they’re not doing anything”.

It’s not the smoking and discarding of cigarettes alone that makes them a threat to the environment, but the industry that produces them. Besides, the waste that comes with it, the cultivation of tobacco plants and paper needed for cigarette production, contribute significantly to deforestation. A cigarette manufacturer approximately uses four miles of paper per hour to roll and package cigarettes and it is estimated that every 300 cigarettes, require the cutting of one tree. 

Out of the ten questioned AUP smokers, only one claimed to never throw his cigarette butts on the ground. While the rest admitted to opting for the ground every once in a while, but only when they could not find a trash can around. They all expressed some form of guilt because of it. The majority did not consider sustainability in their smoking choices but in other aspects of their lives. Smoking being neither a healthy nor environmentally favorable practice, there are ways to indulge in this vice in a bit more sustainable way: research and if preferable switch your tobacco company, use organic papers and biodegradable filters - that way you don’t have to feel bad if you do accidentally miss the trash can.