Making tobacco companies responsible for our most common item of litter

Tobacco companies must be made responsible for ciagarette butts. Image of butts

By Dr Ingrid Johnston, Senior Policy Officer, Public Health Association of Australia

Cigarette butts have long been the most common item of litter globally. About four and a half trillion cigarette butts are disposed of in the environment each year. Despite the decrease in the number of smokers in Australia, butts remain the single most common item of litter. PHAA believe the solution is to require tobacco companies to implement Extended Producer Responsibility.

Litter clean up in Australia costs more than $1 billion annually, with taxpayer funds from local and state governments paying for 80 percent, with businesses, schools and community organisations contributing the remaining 20 percent of costs. More than $2.7 million per day is spent on litter – this could instead be spent on health and education.

Cigarette filters are made from paper and cellulose acetate, which is a plastic which does not fully biodegrade, and has no health benefit. These butts and other tobacco product wastes contain all the toxins, nicotine and carcinogens found in tobacco products, along with the plastic nonbiodegradable filter attached to most cigarettes. The plastic particles and toxicants may never disappear from water or soil and continue leaching chemicals for up to ten years. However, some people (both smokers and non-smokers) erroneously believe that cigarette butts are biodegradable.

While community education campaigns such as Clean Up Australia have, over many years, reduced the social acceptability of littering, this does not seem have extended to littering cigarette butts. A different approach is clearly needed.

The history of the tobacco industry shows it has long feared being held responsible for cigarette litter, and responded by shifting responsibility onto consumers through initiatives such as the largely ineffectual Butt Free Australia or claiming that switching to e-cigarettes is a sustainability measure. Corporate social responsibility programs of tobacco companies have been widely criticised by WHO and others as part of tobacco industry promotional activity. Tobacco industry efforts to evade regulation have been recognised in calls for extended producer responsibility to incorporate environmental harms from tobacco in strategies to reach the Sustainable Development Goals.

As part of a plan to reduce plastic production and waste, the NSW Government is considering extended producer responsibility for cigarette butts.

Both smokers and non-smokers believe that extended producer responsibility measures such as a law requiring all filters to be biodegradable, and an annual fee to tobacco companies to meet the cost of cleaning up tobacco litter would be among the most effective policy responses.

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) requires total lifecycle environmental improvements and places liability, economic and financial, physical and informational responsibilities onto the manufacturers of the waste product. This is distinct from Product Stewardship, which extends responsibility to all parties involved in the life cycle of the product. Both usually involve postconsumer return and final disposal of the product, for example by using a deposit-return scheme.

Legislation for EPR has been applied to toxic and hazardous waste products such as paints, pesticide containers and unused pharmaceuticals.

PHAA strongly supports this Principle being applied to cigarette butts and other tobacco waste products to improve their collection and management. EPR focuses on toxic source reduction, post-consumer take-back and final disposal of consumer products. These principles have not previously been a clear focus for tobacco products, and have been found to have the potential to substantially decrease the environmental and public health harms of tobacco waste products.

EPR involves multiple benefits, including awareness raising – in this instance, of the environmental hazards of cigarette butts.

In the EU, a similar scheme was adopted in May 2019, covering the cost to clean up these items of litter. The rationale notes that producers “have a responsibility to contribute to clean-up and recycling costs, as they are contributing to the problem upstream with their production methods”.

Indeed they do.


Photo by Sera Cocora from Pexels

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