The unseen cost of cigarette pollution: Billions in environmental damage

The yearly economic cost of cigarette plastic waste amounts to approximately $26 billion.

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Sidewalks, beaches, and parks often bear a common, yet overlooked, pollutant—cigarette butts. These small items, frequently ignored, impose a substantial environmental burden. A recent study has brought to light the significant cost of cigarette waste in terms of ecological damage and waste management. The study, spearheaded by Deborah K. Sy, a global health lawyer and head of global public policy at the Global Center for Good Governance in Tobacco Control, was featured in the British Medical Journal (BMJ). Sy’s research highlights a critical issue often missed in environmental discussions: the plastics in cigarette packaging and filters.

The study estimates these contribute to an astounding $26 billion in annual costs, accruing to $186 billion every decade, primarily from marine ecosystem damage and waste management efforts. Sy’s analysis focuses on cigarette filters, a significant source of single-use plastic pollution, often ignored in global conversations about reducing plastic waste. These filters are not just the most common waste item collected worldwide; they also cause extensive harm to marine ecosystems and contribute significantly to land pollution.

To assess the global economic impact of tobacco product waste, Sy employed a detailed analysis using publicly available data on cigarette sales, along with marine and terrestrial plastic waste data from cigarettes and their clean-up costs. The study draws upon resources from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the World Bank, the World Wildlife Fund, and The Tobacco Atlas.

Her findings are sobering. The yearly economic cost of cigarette plastic waste amounts to approximately $26 billion. This total is broken down into $20.7 billion for marine ecosystem damage and $5 billion for waste management costs, accumulating to $186 billion over a decade.

The study reveals that the majority of cigarette butt waste occurs predominantly in low and middle-income countries. According to Sy’s estimates, the highest costs of cigarette plastics pollution are likely found in Indonesia, China, Japan, the Philippines, and Bangladesh.

Sy points out that the provided figures are conservative. They do not fully account for the toxic metals and chemicals in cigarette butts that accumulate over time and potentially make them more harmful than general plastic waste. “Cigarette filters have been polluting our oceans and land for at least five decades,” Sy states, noting that the human and ecosystem impacts of this toxic chemical accumulation remain unknown.

The study highlights a growing initiative to make the tobacco industry accountable for environmental damages. Sy mentions that policies are under consideration in the European Union, France, the UK, and the USA to shift the responsibility of tobacco waste clean-up to the tobacco industry itself.

Sy emphasizes that while the environmental costs of cigarette waste might seem minor compared to the overall economic losses from tobacco, they are significant and, importantly, preventable. Her study provides fiscal evidence for the urgent need to address tobacco plastic waste pollution and underscores the importance of enacting effective policies to tackle this often-neglected environmental issue.

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Alexandra Jacobo is a dedicated progressive writer, activist, and mother with a deep-rooted passion for social justice and political engagement. Her journey into political activism began in 2011 at Zuccotti Park, where she supported the Occupy movement by distributing blankets to occupiers, marking the start of her earnest commitment to progressive causes. Driven by a desire to educate and inspire, Alexandra focuses her writing on a range of progressive issues, aiming to foster positive change both domestically and internationally. Her work is characterized by a strong commitment to community empowerment and a belief in the power of informed public action. As a mother, Alexandra brings a unique and personal perspective to her activism, understanding the importance of shaping a better world for future generations. Her writing not only highlights the challenges we face but also champions the potential for collective action to create a more equitable and sustainable world.

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