The dirty truth about cigarette filters

Blue smoke curls up from my terrace. After the last puff, a flesh-coloured filter is thrown carefully into the garden, disappearing between the roses and the rhododendrons. I’m shocked. I think it’s messy, cigarette filters in my garden, on the street and on the beach.  “Don’t worry, it will disappear” is the standard reply to my mild disgust. And that always silences me: if it’s going to disappear, am I not being too critical to make a point of it?

My shock deepens after reading the dirty truth about cigarette filters on the CNN website. The reality? There is cellulose acetate in cigarette filters, a kind of plastic that only disappears under extreme circumstances. That might be OK in a wastewater treatment plant: but in my garden or on the beach the filters are almost indestructible. There they will gradually disintegrate into continually smaller particles which, in the end, will be invisible to the naked eye. It looks as if the filter has disappeared: but the plastic is still there. It’s in the soil and in the water. And who knows: maybe it’s in my roses and in the frog-spawn as well….

There are a mind-blowing number of cigarette butts littering the world. It’s the number one plastic item that we throw away. Every year, 6 trillion cigarettes are sold: 90% have a plastic filter. That’s more than a million tons of plastic rubbish. Clean-ups on the Dutch tourist beaches have shown the same result: the cigarette filter is the most commonly-found plastic item. And yes: as I stroll along the loose sand on the beach, I often feel a filter between my toes.

Cigarette filters don’t contain only plastic, but also a cocktail of toxic substances: arsenic (rat poison!), lead, nicotine and pesticides. As the filter disintegrates, the chemicals seep into the soil or the water. A university in the US did a test with fishes: they let them swim around in water where cigarette filters had been floating for 24 hours (one filter per litre of water). After a coupe of days, half of the fish were dead.

Filters were invented to improve the health of smokers. They don’t, according to another survey. The chance of getting lung cancer actually increases as a result of the filter.

I wish that I could say that I was too critical with my disgust for cigarette filters. I would happily accept all those filters shot between my roses and rhododendrons – and those between my toes on the beach. But the truth is unfortunately much dirtier than I thought.

Luckily, the solution is easy: it’s there just waiting to be picked up. Ban the filter cigarette.

Everybody – and everything – wins.

Renske Postma

Photo by Jeroen Gosse