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The Problem With Butts

Cig_ribbit_bradleygeePhoto: Bradleygee/Flickr

One point four million. That's how many cigarette butts volunteers collected during beach clean-up events in the United States in 2008 alone, according to Ocean Conservancy. Think of how many they missed. And consider all the butts you've seen tossed off chair lifts, or on river banks or on trails. Their collective impact isn't just an aesthetic one.

"A lot of the same elements that are toxic to people who inhale nicotine are also in the butts, and they are in high concentrations," says Martin Mulvihill, the executive director of the University of California, Berkeley's Center for Green Chemistry and the author of an article in Environmental Health News about research into biodisposable cigarette butts. "If a bird eats a few butts, it gets a high dose of those toxins."

Biodegradable cigarette butts obviously won't eliminate those toxins (which include, in small amounts, arsenic, lead and cadmium), but they could shorten the amount of time the butts are sitting around and available to wayward foragers. Mulvihill says he has seen wildly varying reports on how long it takes conventional butts to decompose in nature. A manufacturer of cigarettes, clearly not an objective source, claims they disappear within nine months. A start-up called Greenbutts that is marketing biodegradable butts, another biased source, says conventional butts linger for a good 15 years.

Mulvihill's article focuses on a research paper published in the journal Green Chemistry and produced by researchers at Celanese, a Texas-based manufacturer of cellulose acetate. Guess what cigarette filters are mostly made of? Cellulose acetate fibers. Creating a butt that decomposes more quickly than conventional butts would make this firm attractive to tobacco companies.

By itself, cellulose acetate degrades relatively quickly since it's made of wood or cotton. But to make cigarette filters, a chemical called acetic anhydride is added, effectively converting the fibers to a type of plastic. The researchers at Celanese are experimenting with additives that would be released after the cigarette is smoked and the butt exposed to moisture (outside, that would be in the form of dew or rain). Research shows the butts could disappear within a couple of months, depending on the ambient temperature and moisture.

The key issues are making the filters stay intact from the point of manufacture to the point where the butt is discarded—hopefully it is discarded in a trash receptacle, but that is hardly ensured. One of the unfortunate side effects of smokers being banished from lighting up indoors is that once outside, there are generally very few trash cans or ashtrays. As a result, more butts are tossed to the curb. And once at the curb, they generally make their way into storm drains. From there, they could very well end up being washed out into a body of water, leaving so many beaches covered with so many butts—and not the kind in bikinis.

—Mary Catherine O'Connor

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