Cigarette butts on the beach

No butts about it — when it comes to litter, cigarette butts are at the top of the heap. The International Coastal Cleanup, which takes place in 91 countries, consistently lists cigarette butts as the #1 type of litter collected on beaches. In 2015 volunteers recorded a whopping 2,127,565 butts.

As the program manager for Blue Flag Canada, I am responsible for ensuring that awarded beaches uphold high standards of cleanliness. Yet even when I visit beaches that are cleaned on a daily basis, I find cigarette butts. Butts are too small for most beach cleaning equipment to pick up, and they are easily camouflaged or buried in the sand.

I see cigarette butt litter — and litterbugs — everywhere I go. Most of us wouldn’t think of tossing a pop can onto the street, but smokers flick their butts with abandon. It really burns me up.

So why has cigarette butt litter got me fuming? Well, besides being unsightly, cigarette butts pose a serious health hazard and pollute the environment. Here are five reasons to ban those dirty butts from our beaches:

  1. Cigarette butts don’t biodegrade.

Those fluffy white fibres in a cigarette filter may look like cotton, but they are actually a plastic called cellulose acetate. And like any plastic, cigarette butts persist in the environment. It can take up to 10 years for butts to break down. They never completely decompose — they simply become smaller and smaller, joining the realm of microplastics polluting our waterways. So as long as people keep littering them, butts will continue to accumulate in the environment.

  1. Cigarette butts are toxic waste.

Even if they were biodegradable, cigarette butts would still leach toxins into the environment. Cigarettes contain over 4,000 chemicals, 70 of which cause cancer. The filters are designed to absorb this toxic cocktail, which they serve up to the ecosystem.

  1. Cigarette butts pollute water.

Cigarette butts are like tiny toxic teabags — and it doesn’t take long for them to steep. In less than an hour, cigarette butts leach toxins into the water. But how many cigarette butts does it take to have an impact? The answer is surprising. A single cigarette butt is enough to kill half the fish in a litre of water.

  1. Cigarette butts harm wildlife.

Cigarette butts are mistaken by pets and wildlife as food. They can give animals a false sense of fullness, leading to starvation. Butts can be lethal if they choke animals or get lodged in their digestive tracts.

Marine animals aren’t the only critters that ingest cigarette butts — babies love to put everything in their mouths. When small children ingest cigarette butts, they can show symptoms such as spontaneous vomiting, nausea, lethargy, gagging, and flushing.

  1. Cigarette butts are bad for the economy.

Cigarette butts may be small, but they cost big bucks to clean up. With cigarette butts comprising 22 to 36 per cent of visible litter, major cities can spend anywhere from $3 million to $16 million to remove cigarette butts. And the cost for all the street sweeping, park and beach maintenance, and storm drain cleaning to remove this waste is passed on to the community.


We’re taking action to stamp out cigarette butt litter. We’ve teamed up with the Lake Huron Centre for Coastal Conservation to expand the Butt-free Beach program to beaches across Canada. And we’re excited to launch this initiative at Wasaga Beach. Join us on Friday, July 21 at Beach Area 5 for a beach cleanup and learn more about our Butt-free Beach campaign.