Plastic in cigarette filters: why smoking is bad for the environment too
We all know smoking is bad for our health. But we might not have known that the cigarette filters that litter our streets also impact the environment. Esther Kentin is a lecturer at Leiden Law School. She is raising awareness of the University’s cigarette butt problem.
Her colleagues on the Faculty know she’s the one to call if there’s a sustainability issue that needs resolving. Alongside Moot Court lecturer, Esther Kentin is the Sustainability Coordinator at the Faculty Office. This is how she heard that although the University is smoke-free, cigarette butts litter the street by its buildings. Not very nice for the residents and definitely not good for the environment.
You’ve been one of the figures raising awareness about the problem. Why is it so important to you?
‘I’m an environmental law graduate and have always been active for environmental organisations. That often focused on the legal side but later on I became involved with the plastic problem too. At the request of our dean, Joanne van der Leun, I started working on a project looking at the environmental impact of cigarette butts. We’ve got a great anti-smoking policy and a smoke-free university, but the result just outside our grounds is cigarette butts all over the place. We wanted to do something about this.’
Can you tell us a bit about the environmental impact of cigarette filters?
‘Cigarette filters mainly consist of plastic, so they take a really long time to decompose. Filters do break down but then you’re left with microplastics. The cigarette filters end up in the canals or sewers or littering the streets, and the microplastics pollute the canal or sewer water and the soil. Alongside plastic, the filters contain the toxic chemicals from cigarettes, such as tar and nicotine. These leach into the water. It may seem like a tiny amount, but the large number of cigarette butts in the streets make it a problem. Cigarette filters are one of the top-ten single-use plastic items found on European beaches even and number one in the Netherlands.’
Is there a sustainable alternative?
‘They’re working on biodegradable filters made from natural materials. And there’s a campaign to get rid of cigarette filters completely, but that’s unlikely to be successful in the short term because people often deliberately choose to smoke with a filter. Alternative filters are more realistic, but then you only solve the plastic problem. The toxic chemicals from cigarettes can still end up in the water.
There are initiatives looking at whether you can recycle cigarette butts, Peukenzee for example. They’re collecting cigarette filters and studying how to make the recycling process as efficient as possible. And they’re raising awareness of the negative impact of filters on the environment.’
What can smokers do to reduce the environmental impact?
‘Throw your cigarette butts in the bin, so the microplastics and toxic chemicals don’t end up in the water or soil. We have to stop people from throwing things away that someone else has to clean up. And we can’t go on thinking that cigarette butts will discompose. You still have to throw biodegradable filters in the bin, not in the street.’
This interview is in the context of the ’Smoke-free University’. For the past two years, smoking has been banned on the whole University site. Nonetheless, there are still a lot of cigarette butts littering the ground around the buildings. The University’s aim with this campaign is to make people aware of the environmental damage caused by cigarette filters.
On 30 May, the University placed containers at seven University buildings to collect the cigarette butts that people have dropped on the ground. The University wants to show how many cigarette butts are being removed from the environment. Once the campaign has ended, the contents of the containers will be donated to Peukenzee, a lobby group aiming to stop cigarette butts being discarded on the streets, to support their research on recycling of cigarette filters.