Shucking Oysters: Butt Out


Shucking Oysters: Butt Out

Alex Allen

Returning home from Campbell River the other week, we stopped at that last rest area on the beach to chill for a bit. Instead of noticing the lack of snow on the mountains on the mainland, my gaze stared with sadness at all these cigarette butts tossed at the edge of the parking lot. There must have been over 200. What are people thinking … or not thinking? 

Depending which article you read, cigarette butts can take up to 10 years, 14 years, 720 days, or 18 months to decompose. The point is that they are not biodegradable. They are made of cellulose acetate, a man-made plastic material, containing hundreds of toxic chemicals. The filters will eventually breakdown into smaller pieces, but the toxics (arsenic, lead, nicotine…) never disappear. It is no surprise, that cigarette butts are the No. 1 most littered item in the world, with about 4.5 trillion individual butts polluting the environment. Trillions.

A 2011 study by San Diego State University suggested that the chemicals leached from one smoked cigarette butt were capable of killing half of the fish present in a one-litre bucket of water, while researchers at the UK’s Anglia Ruskin University found cigarette butts significantly compromised the growth of terrestrial plants.

Others have delved into the long-term effects of the chemicals in cigarette butts, finding that after 28 days of exposure freshwater rainbow trout ended up weighing less while Mediterranean mussels absorbed 22 compounds, including some classified as potentially toxic to both humans and wildlife.

So, what’s the answer? Some say that tobacco companies need to stop putting single-use plastic filters on the trillions of cigarettes they produce. A ban on cigarette filters would be a logical first step. Studies have linked filters to inhaling deeper, potentially increasing the risk of an aggressive form of cancer known as lung adenocarcinoma. 

France is set to charge tobacco manufacturers €80million francs annually to clean up the estimated 23 billion cigarette butts littered each year across the country, while governments in Gambia, Chad and Benin have imposed environmental taxes of up to 4% on packs of cigarettes. In Spain, 550 of the country’s more than 3,000 beaches have banned smoking. 

A Swedish start-up company, Corvid (crow-like birds) Cleaning, is at the pilot stage, training wild crows to pick up cigarette butts on the street, and deposit them in a machine. Christian Günther-Hanssen, the founder of the company, said the method relies on positive reinforcement and that the birds would receive a little food each time they deposit a butt in the machine. Bird experts have expressed deep concerns. Yet Günther-Hanssen claims that “These are wild birds taking part voluntarily.”

Another start-up, in the Netherlands, called Crowded Cities, was also working on training crows to drop cigarette butts in a ‘Crowbar,’ which scans the item to confirm it’s a cigarette butt, and then gives the crow a food reward. Unfortunately, after a year of research and development, the team ended the project due to lack of money, and the unintended and unknown impact that cigarette butts might have on unsuspecting crows. Once again we are dealing with the symptoms and not the cause. As someone wrote, we are good at doing things; we’re not so great at stopping things. 

A few weeks ago, a driver in Victoria flicked a lit cigarette out of their window onto a grass median and another in Saanich threw a cigarette butt off the Pat Bay Highway. Both were each ticketed $575 under the Wildfire Act “for dropping, releasing or mishandling a burning substance.” Police Chief Del Manak tweeted that the Victoria driver’s explanation was they had no ashtray in their car and they were planning on getting out of the vehicle to put out the lit smoke, after they got off the phone. That same week, the Central Saanich Fire Department was called out to a major brush fire. The cause was a discarded butt and ended up scorching a 20-metre-square area. A few days later, Central Saanich firefighters were called to a residence where bark mulch caught fire. The cause? A burning cigarette.


Despite a record-breaking wildfire season that’s scorched more than 10,600 sq. km. of woodland across British Columbia, some smokers just don’t get it. A BC Wildfire Service spokesperson said if your discarded smoke causes or contributes to a wildfire, you may be ordered to pay all firefighting and associated costs. Butt heads could also be held responsible for damages to Crown land (the value of the forests…lumber) which could be significant.

Back in 2017, a truck driver in Langford, was charged $575 for tossing the remnants of his cigarette out the window — a fine that the driver called “insane,” according to the officer on the scene. The driver then shared with the officer that it was the second time he’s been charged for tossing a cigarette butt. What pray tell, can you do to fix stupidity? 

On Hornby, a group introduced pocket ashtrays a few years ago to combat butt littering. Simply open the flap, and put the butt in the pocket and shut tightly. Sure it will smell after a while, but better that than festering on the ground somewhere or worse starting a wildfire. Will we take responsibility for our habits? If I may paraphrase, Grant Lawrence, take a long drag on that and butt out … with mindfulness.