Cigarette butts are the most common piece of litter picked up in the United States. Thrown butts are also a big problem on beaches and in oceans around the world.
Although e-cigarettes still create some litter, making the switch to vaping can help clean up streets, parks and beaches and stop toxic chemicals from used butts leaching into the environment.
The problem with cigarette butts
Cigarette butts have consistently made up around 30-40% of all litter items collected in urban and coastal cleanups. This is despite the fact that smoking rates have been dropping across much of the Western world.
A Keep America Beautiful roadway litter survey found that – along with other tobacco products like cigars and tobacco packaging – cigarette butts were the single biggest item of litter collected. Butts made up 38% of the 51.2 billion pieces of litter collected.
Cigarette butts were also the number one collected item in clean-up efforts in retail areas, storm drains, construction sites and parks and playgrounds.
And cigarette litter isn’t just a problem in the United States. The most recent Ocean Conservancy survey of litter collected from the planet’s beaches and oceans turned up almost two-and-a-half million cigarette butts, enough to line the distance of five marathons.
It is expensive clearing up after butt droppers. One study found that cities the size of San Francisco spend, on average, between $500,000 and $6 million annually to keep streets and parks free from cigarette litter.
The environmental impacts of tobacco waste aren’t as widely known as the health effects of tobacco. But some of the facts make disturbing reading.
Almost all cigarette filters are made using plastic fibers that do not degrade easily.
Observational studies and self-reports from smokers suggest that between one-third and two-thirds of the butts from smoked cigarettes are tossed into the surrounding environment or dumped in storm drains.
One study on smoker’s attitudes to tobacco waste found that almost one-in-ten (8.2%) smokers didn’t consider cigarette butts to be litter and almost a fifth (17.6%) thought that cigarette butts were biodegradable.
Cigarette butts cause more direct environmental problems too. Another study from Elli Slaughter of San Diego State University found that a single cigarette butt with traces of tobacco could kill 50% of fish if it was dropped in a liter of water.
Butts can also be eaten by birds and other animals and chemicals from the butts can leach into the earth and into water systems.
Researchers have called for a number of measures to prevent cigarette butts from becoming an environmental crisis, including cigarette product redesigns and calls for tobacco companies to help pay for the costs of cleaning up cigarette butts.
No ifs, no butts
Many smokers use e-cigarettes to help them quit. Landmark government research from the UK indicates that e-cigarettes are 95% safer than combustible cigarettes. But can switching to e-cigarettes help save the environment as well as your health.
We think that it is safe to say that e-cigarettes produce less litter than combustible cigarettes. We also think it is fair to say that e-cigarettes and their component parts are less likely to find themselves thrown on the side of the road or buried on a beach, and more likely to be sent to landfill or get recycled.
One thing that we believe hasn’t been covered in a lot of academic literature and media commentary is that there are different kinds of e-cigarette, with differing litter consequences.
For example, one study that compared the toxic leaching of e-cigarettes and combustible cigarettes concluded that e-cigarettes produce ten times less toxic leaching than regular tobacco cigarettes. But it only focused on one brand of disposable e-cigarette.
Three of the most common types of e-cigarette are:
- Disposable e-cigarettes
- Pod mod devices, like JUUL e-cigs
- Refillable devices like box mods
While they all vaporize e-liquid, the designs of these products mean that they create differing amounts of litter.
Disposable e-cigarettes are just that, disposable. They last for a few hundred puffs before they are thrown away. Many disposable e-cigarettes say that they are equivalent to around 40 cigarettes, so even when a disposable e-cig is trashed, it is still saving the equivalent of 40 cigarette butts.
Pod mod devices like the market leading JUUL device are slightly more litter-friendly. The device itself lasts for a long time, but many come with disposable pods that are thrown away after a couple of hundred puffs.
Refillable e-cigarettes like box mods are arguably the most litter-friendly e-cigarettes.
This isn’t to suggest that refillable e-cigarettes produce no litter. An e-cigarette atomizer or coil will degrade after a few weeks and will need to be thrown away.
But from our experience, it’s more likely to be thrown in a trashcan than out in the street. And in any case, an e-cigarette coil is likely to be ‘equivalent’ to several hundred cigarette butts, so you are saving on a significant amount of litter.
E-liquid containers are another source of litter for refillable e-cigarettes. But the glass and plastic bottles can often be re-used or cleaned out and recycled to minimize their environmental impact.
Lithium ion batteries are another source of potential concern. But the batteries that are used in box mods are generally rechargeable, and are not routinely thrown away. When batteries are spent, they can also be recycled through mail-in or drop off recycling programmes.
To be clear, we aren’t saying that e-cigarettes produce no litter. Just that switching from tobacco cigarettes to electronic can help save on litter production.