So Many Butts

Ew. Gross.

The other day while1

…walking to the mall or walking to campus or walking on campus or walking downtown Guelph or walking pretty much anywhere…

I couldn’t help but notice something. That something – cigarette butts. Everywhere I looked. Cigarette butts thrown, flicked, and smashed into the ground and discarded as if doing so were as natural as breathing. Why is this form of littering socially acceptable?

Of course, the density of discarded butts varies from place to place2, but it doesn’t take an eagle eye to spot them. Their ubiquity – as disgusting as it is – can’t be understated.

After observing this, I got to wondering how many butts there might be. I don’t just mean on campus, or in Guelph. I mean in the world – discarded with a flick of the wrist as if the cigarette butts might miraculously vanish from existence. And then, knowing how bad cigarettes are, I wondered How bad are cigarette butts?

So pretty. Unless you imagine this filled with butts. Ew. Just ew.

So I did what any curious person would do; I turned to Google. What I learned shocked me.

First and foremost, the estimates indicate that 5.6 trillion cigarettes are smoked world-wide every year. Of these, 4.5 trillion butts are haphazardly tossed away3,4.

Those are some pretty massive numbers so let’s put them into context. If we assume that a cigarette butt can be squashed to the size of a dime (probably a stretch), and given that a standard (US) dime has a volume of approximately 340 mm, and knowing that 1 cubic metre is made up of 1000000000 (1 billion) cubic millimetres, then 4.5 trillion butts-squished-to-the-size-of-a-dime would occupy 1530000 cubic metres.

So tall and awesome. Unless it’s replaced with butts. Ew. Just ew.

That’s still a big number so consider this: Water pours over Niagara Falls at a rate of 1834 cubic metres per second. At that rate, it would take approximately 834 seconds (almost 14 minutes) of water falling over Niagara Falls before you’d have collected the same volume of water as butts-squished-to-the-size-of-a-dime discarded per year.

That is insane!

But it gets worse. Assuming the average cigarette butt is approximately 0.170097 grams5, 4.5 trillion of them would weigh about 765436500 kilograms (1687496617 lbs) or 765436.5 metric tonnes. The CN Tower weighs 117910 metric tonnes. So basically, all of the cigarette butts thrown away in a year would weigh about the same as 6.5 CN Towers.

Sweet. Baby. Jesus.

Beyond all of this, these other quotes alarmed me:

95% of cigarette filters are made of cellulose acetate, a plastic slow to degrade.

Even with a small amount of unburnt tobacco clinging to it, a single cigarette butt soaked for a day is enough to turn a liter of water a sickly yellow brown and kill 50 percent of fish swimming in it. Without tobacco, it takes about 4 smoked filters to do the same job.

Seriously? SERIOUSLY!

Not only are cigarette butts abundant, they degrade slowly and are harmful to our environment. And should they make their way into the water supply (a rather likely situation), they have the ability to seriously harm aquatic life.


So to those of you out there who choose to smoke, I’m not going to ask you to quit, I’m simply going to ask you to please consider this: while those butts may seem trivial to you, inconsequential even, they are far more damaging than we might think. Please dispose of them properly. Or just stop smoking.

Okay – so I guess I did ask you to quit.

1 Select one, because the sentence is valid in all cases.

2 I find it particularly amusing – at least on campus – that there seems to be a disproportionately large concentration of cigarette butts immediately beneath the sign at the library that reads Don’t Smoke Here.

3 Slaughter, E., et al. (2011). Toxicity of cigarette butts, and their chemical components, to marine and freshwater fish. Tob Control, 20:i24-i29.

4 Underwater Naturalist Article.

5 Based on the numbers found in the Underwater Naturalist Article above.


4 Comments Add yours

  1. Alyssa says:

    Totally disgusting. This is one of my biggest pet peeves – especially when thrown out of car windows. Yuck.

    1. dangillis says:

      I know. Nothing like a flaming cancer ball flying through the air – especially at night. Always freaks me out. Additionally – ew.

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