Plastic pollution via cigarette butts – 06 Aug 2022

Plastic is literally impossible to avoid in daily life

Plastic has pervaded our modern lives, making it literally impossible to avoid. Plastics are used to package the foods we eat, the drinks we consume, and to make the varied products we buy. While plastics have many valuable uses, the profusion of single-use plastics is especially problematic given their abundance and their deleterious impact on the natural environment as well as on humans.

The amount of plastic the world has begun to produce over the past few decades is staggering. According to the United Nations Environmental Program, around a million plastic bottles are sold every single minute around the world. Around five trillion plastic bags are used globally each year.

Around half of all plastic produced is currently meant for single use only. It is used once, and then thrown away; single-use plastic does not magically disintegrate. Instead, single-use plastic products can take years to decompose. Plastic straws, for example, are estimated to take up to 200 years to decompose. Moreover, single-use plastics do not decompose completely. Instead, they begin to turn into microplastics as they begin to disintegrate, and these microplastics leech into the surrounding environment and begin making their way further along to contaminate freshwater supplies and the oceans. They are also ingested by animals and marine life, which in turn is consumed by humans. Scientists have even found micro-plastics in the human placenta, which are being passed onto unborn babies.

The world seriously needs to rethink its plastic addiction, especially that of single-use plastics. One unsuspected but major source of single-use plastics is cigarette butts. Cigarette butts have tiny plastic fibres, which begin to release toxic chemicals into the natural environment right after a cigarette has been stubbed out and becomes trash. Estimates of cigarette butts being thrown away yearly run into the trillions. Cigarette butts can take around ten years to degrade. Meanwhile, each one of these discarded butts release more than 7,000 toxic chemicals into the natural environment. Thus, it is not only smokers and second-hand or passive smokers whose health is being wrecked by cigarettes. Cigarette butts also cause havoc on the environment.

The tobacco industry is trying to push vaping as a safer and cleaner alternative to smoking. Leaving aside the debates concerning the relative safety of these new tobacco products, the production of these alternatives is evidently creating newer forms of pollution, for example, via the use of minerals used to make batteries for vape devices. In countries like Pakistan and India, chewing tobacco such as gutka and naswar, which are often sold in small plastic pouches, become another major source of plastic pollution.

Given this escalating problem of plastic pollution, it is encouraging to see the UN system having finally articulated a plastics treaty, which aims to provide a global mechanism to contend with the plastic pollution problem. Many countries around the world are trying to establish policies to lessen and even ban the use of single-use plastics with varying degrees of success. It is vital that plastic pollution efforts also focus on the plastic waste being generated by cigarette butts and other tobacco and nicotine products.

Governments around the world need to compel the tobacco industry to clean up the waste and to pay for the environmental damage being caused due to their products. In recent decades, we have seen the increasing regulation of the tobacco industry and a concerted public awareness drive, which has managed to convince large segments of the population not to smoke due to health reasons. Now a similar effort needs to be made to highlight the damage being caused by the tobacco industry on the already highly stressed natural environment.

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