News / Vancouver

SFU study calls for tobacco companies to clean up their butts

The study is calling for tobacco companies to take the hit and be held accountable for the environmental impact of discarded cigarette butts.

Student and staff at Simon Fraser University have collected over 45 kilograms of cigarette butts over three one-hour campus clean-up sessions.

Courtesy Simon Fraser University

Student and staff at Simon Fraser University have collected over 45 kilograms of cigarette butts over three one-hour campus clean-up sessions.

A new study co-authored by a Simon Fraser University health sciences professor is calling for tobacco companies to take the hit and be held accountable for the environmental impact of discarded cigarette butts.

Kelley Lee, who co-authored the study with Washington, D.C.-based Cigarette Butt Pollution Project, says a new regulatory approach is long overdue for addressing the environmental harm caused by cigarette butts.

“We can’t just be focusing on picking up a few thousand butts every now and then, putting it on the taxpayers to pay all the cost or blaming the smokers for littering,” she told Metro. “We need to mandate tobacco companies to do this through legislation.”

For the study, Lee and her colleagues developed a “model tobacco waste act” that they hope governments will adopt requiring tobacco companies be held responsible for the cost and physical process of cleaning up cigarette butts.

According to the study, cigarette butts are one of the most common waste products, with up to five trillion cigarettes disposed of each year worldwide.

One to two-thirds of cigarettes tossed by smokers end up buried in landfills, leeching chemicals into soil, or are washed into storm drains, where they pollute water and often end up being ingested by wildlife, the study found.

Lee said the vast majority of cigarettes sold today contain filters, usually made of cellulose acetate, a type of plastic that can’t be broken down.

Tossing cigarette butts also leads to costly clean-up, and sometimes serious emergency situations, she said. Last summer, Vancouver firefighters battled more than 35 grass fires that were sparked by discarded butts.

She said other industries that produce hazardous consumer goods, like paint, fluorescent lights and pharmaceuticals, are legally responsible for the safe disposal of their products.

“Right now, we rely on civically minded people to go out and clean up this mess, but why don’t the tobacco companies do it?” she asked. “They’re the ones creating this mess.”

While she acknowledged that smokers shouldn’t be “let off the hook” for littering, Lee argued that tobacco companies that create such an addictive product should ultimately be held responsible for the post-consumer waste.

Still, she said she hopes the act of tossing a cigarette will eventually be viewed as socially unacceptable behaviour, ultimately reducing the number of discarded butts.

“We no longer find it socially acceptable for people to spit on the ground or let their dogs foul the pavement,” she said. “But somehow we don’t have that for littering cigarette butts, and I’d love to see that in time.”

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