Regulating the disposal of cigarette butts as toxic
Richard L Barnes
The trillions of cigarette butts generated each year
throughout the world pose a signiﬁcant challenge for
disposal regulations, primarily because there are
millions of points of disposal, along with the necessity
to segregate, collect and dispose of the butts in a safe
manner, and cigarette butts are toxic, hazardous waste.
There are some hazardous waste laws, such as those
covering used tyres and automobile batteries, in which
the retailer is responsible for the proper disposal of the
waste, but most post-consumer waste disposal is the
responsibility of the consumer. Concepts such as
extended producer responsibility (EPR) are being used
for some post-consumer waste to pass the
responsibility and cost for recycling or disposal to the
manufacturer of the product. In total, 32 states in the
US have passed EPR laws covering auto switches,
batteries, carpet, cell phones, electronics, ﬂuorescent
lighting, mercury thermostats, paint and pesticide
containers, and these could be models for
cigarette waste legislation. A broader concept of
producer stewardship includes EPR, but adds the
consumer and the retailer into the regulation. The State
of Maine considered a comprehensive product
stewardship law in 2010 that is a much better model
than EPR. By using either EPR or the Maine model, the
collecting and disposing of cigarette butt waste.
Additional requirements included in the Maine model
are needed for consumers and businesses to complete
the network that will be necessary to maximise the
segregation and collection of cigarette butts to protect
WHAT MAKES CIGARETTE BUTT WASTE
POLLUTION A DIFFICULT WASTE DISPOSAL
To begin to grapple with this issue, one must
appreciate the sheer magnitude of the problem.
More than 5 trillion cigarettes are smoked world-
wide each year, and all of them are disposed of in
There are literally millions of points
of deposit on the planet. They are dropped on the
ground, tossed in trash bins and carted off to
landﬁlls with little or no thought being given by
the smoker or society at large as to what that
means to the environment. Regardless of how the
butts are disposed of today, each one of them may
pose a toxic hazard to the environment.
Cigarette butts comprise an estimated 30% of
the total litter (by count) along US shorelines,
waterways and on land,
and Keep America Beau-
tiful reported that 80% of all marine debris origi-
nates from land-based sources.
cigarette butts consist of three components:
unsmoked remnant tobacco (including partially
smoked/charred tobacco on the end), the ﬁlter of
aﬁltered cigarette and a paper wrap. Each of these
components of the discarded cigarette butt presents
its own concerns. About 99% of the manufactured
cigarette market is ﬁltered cigarettes; ﬁlters degrade
very slowly and thus become an accumulating
mass of potentially toxic waste. Toxic substances
are leached from the ﬁlter and tobacco residue
and probably pollute ground
water near landﬁlls that are not properly
constructed to contain such leachates. Aquatic life
may be harmed by the toxic leachates,
butts may cause physical harm when ingested by
Butts collect in municipal storm drains
and then may empty into waterways,
and can clog
storm drains and sanitary sewer systems.
Some attempts have been made to change
smoker’s behaviour towards cigarette butt deposi-
tion by enforcing existing anti-littering laws. In
addition, some communities have imposed ciga-
rette butt abatement fees on each pack of ciga-
In San Francisco in 2009, a US$0.20 fee was
added to the price of cigarettes sold in the city,
providing an economic disincentive towards
tobacco product purchases. However, this fee is in
abeyance pending litigation
brought by the
tobacco industry. If implemented, the fee would
also support a public education campaign directed
towards reducing butt waste, as well as recouping
the costs to the city of butt clean-up.
littering laws are not vigorously enforced regarding
cigarette butt waste in most jurisdictions, but these
may reduce the number of cigarette butts dropped
on the ground. Nevertheless, these regulatory
efforts are miniscule when compared with the
scope of the problem.
Unlike a number of consumer products, there is
no known value in recycling cigarette butts, though
a number of new proprietary efforts have been
Destruction of the butts through
is a possibility, if the airborne
components of combustion are not hazardous and
the combustion residue could be disposed of safely.
There is also the issue of who pays for the disposal.
Incineration does not recover anything of value,
where boiler and industrial furnace disposal does
create energy and may recover some material.
Tobacco contains trace amount of several heavy
metals, but it is unlikely that any material recovery
would be economically viable. Assuming that any
of these reuse and disposal methods are efﬁcacious,
there is no known current process for segregating
and collecting butts for reuse or disposal anywhere
in the world.
Center for Tobacco Control
Research and Education,
University of California, San
Francisco, Dan Francisco,
Richard L Barnes, Center for
Tobacco Control Research and
Education, University of
California, San Francisco, 530
Parnassus Ave, Suite 366 San
Francisco, CA 94143-1390;
Received 12 November 2010
Accepted 23 February 2011
This paper is freely available
online under the BMJ Journals
unlocked scheme, see http://
Tobacco Control 2011;20(Suppl 1):i45ei48. doi:10.1136/tc.2010.041301 i45
HAZARDOUS WASTE DISPOSAL MODELS
One must consider how other post-consumer hazardous waste
is segregated and collected may serve as a model for cigarette
butt waste. Tyres and lead-acid batteries are two examples of
post-consumer waste collection that generally have been
acceptable to consumers. When new tyres
or a new automo-
are purchased, the retailer takes responsibility for
disposing of the used product under US government guidelines
and state laws. Most other post-consumer hazardous waste
disposal regulation relies on the consumer to dispose of it safely
and properly, and many states have laws regulating the disposal
of some of these products, such as ﬂashlight batteries, compact
ﬂuorescent light (CFL) ﬁxtures and paint.
We know that
tobacco contains thousands of different and potentially
and that cigarette butts in water leach
a variety of toxic wastes, including heavy metals, nicotine and
However, we have very limited knowledge on the actual toxic
impact of these compounds in the environment.
the precautionary principle to the issue of cigarette butt waste,
it is not necessary to have identiﬁed each and every toxic
compound in cigarette butt leachate before we undertake to
regulate and control it. The precautionary principle holds that
when an activity raises threats to human health or the envi-
ronment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some
cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientiﬁ-
cally, shifting the burden of proof to the proponent of the
and has been embodied in laws and in international
A PRODUCT STEWARDSHIP APPROACH
Product stewardship started in the USA
as an effort to shift
the responsibility and the cost of protecting the environment
from taxpayers to the manufacturer, retailer and consumer for
products put in the stream of commerce: ‘The greater the ability
of a party to inﬂuence the life cycle impacts of a product, the
greater the degree of that party’s responsibility. The stakeholders
typically include manufacturers, retailers, consumers and
This movement has gone global.
of the process is to encourage manufacturers to make products
that are not harmful to the environment, which in the case of
cigarettes is not possible unless the tobacco and possibly the
ﬁlter is removed from them, given the evidence accumulating on
the hazardous content of discarded cigarette butts.
A related, but different, approach is the extended producer
responsibility (EPR) concept, which places the onus of waste
management for end-of-life products on the manufacturer, while
product stewardship adds retailers and consumers into the
process. EPR began to be implemented in Europe in the early
1990s, and was incorporated into European Union environ-
mental policy in 2002; to date it has not been considered at the
federal level in the US.
In the US, as of October 2010 a total of 32 states have enacted
EPR laws that require manufacturers to ﬁnance the costs of
recycling or safe disposal of their consumer products, covering
a range of products including auto switches, batteries, carpet,
cell phones, electronics, ﬂuorescent lighting, mercury-containing
thermostats, paint and pesticide containers.
Most of this
legislation is of recent origin, but it may be another model of
regulations that could be adapted to cigarette butt waste.
EPR in Europe has not been perfectly implemented and may
not be suited to the US.
EPR laws enacted in US states have
each dealt with a speciﬁc product,
thus avoiding some of the
issues found in Europe regarding a singular regulatory scheme
being applied to a wide array of products with an overall goal of
encouraging manufacturers to make design changes. The EU has
not been as successful in meeting this goal on a large range of
products, requiring direct design mandates such as materials
standards and bans on use of certain chemicals.
In the case of
tobacco products, changing the product design to completely
eliminate environmental hazards is not practicable. However,
some have advocated the possibility of removing the ﬁlter from
cigarettes in order to at least improve biodegradability of smoked
This would not, however, eliminate hazardous
leachates from butts containing only tobacco remnants.
In 2010, the State of Maine considered a bill to enact
a comprehensive product stewardship law
that would avoid
the EPR problems experienced in Europe. Under the proposed
law, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection would
designate what products or product categories sold in Maine
would be required to participate in a product stewardship
program, ﬁnanced and either managed or provided by producers
of a designated product. No designated product could be sold or
offered for sale in Maine by any producer, wholesaler, retailer, or
other person unless the producer participated in a product
stewardship program. The producer would pay all administrative
and operational costs of the program, including the costs of
collection, transportation and recycling or disposal, or both, of all
products covered by the program. The proposed statute would
prohibit charging the consumer a fee for taking or collecting the
unwanted product, and require the producers to provide an
education and outreach program to promote use of the program
by consumers. The Department could also establish producer
fees to fully recover its expenses in administering the law.
A producer or stewardship organization that operates a stew-
ardship program on behalf of a producer or group of producers
would have to submit a plan for approval by the Department of
Environmental Protection that included a description of the
collection, transportation, handling, processing, or disposal
systems. In addition, the plan would have to explain how the
collected waste would be reused or recycled or how it would be
disposed of if the Department determined that the waste was
not reusable or recyclable. The plan would also have to describe
the education and outreach to be used, and it would have to
provide information relating to consultation about the plan
with stakeholders including consumers, environmental groups
and retailers. Any subsequent revisions to the plan would have
to be approved by the Department, and detailed annual
reporting to the Department of plan operations would be
required. Failure to submit a product stewardship plan, revisions,
or annual report would have resulted in a ﬁne of up to US
$10 000 a day. Although not spelled out in the proposed statute,
a producer, wholesaler, retailer, or other person selling or offering
for sale a designated product for which the producer was not
participating in a product stewardship program would be
subject to an injunction to prohibit such sale or offer for sale.
The Maine legislature amended the original bill only to require
the Department of Environmental Protection to propose
a product stewardship law in 2011. Despite this delay, the
proposed Maine product stewardship law offers a very good
framework for laws applying to cigarette butt waste; however,
existing state EPR laws are not as comprehensive as the product
stewardship law proposed in Maine.
Because of the unique disposal issues surrounding cigarette
butt waste disposal, any regulatory approach to such waste
should include extensive consumer education about the envi-
ronmental hazards of the tobacco product waste, and enhanced
i46 Tobacco Control 2011;20(Suppl 1):i45ei48. doi:10.1136/tc.2010.041301
and better enforced penalties for improper disposal. The Cali-
fornia litter law
speciﬁcally designates cigarette butts as litter,
imposes a ﬁne of US$250e1000 for their improper disposal and
provides a reward of 50% of the ﬁne to a person giving infor-
mation leading to the arrest and conviction of a person littering
cigarette butts or any other waste. The minimum ﬁne can only
be waived in unusual circumstances, and the court may also
require the convicted person to pick up environmental litter for
no less than 12 h as a further punitive measure.
In the absence of an EPR law or a product stewardship law
such as that proposed in Maine, a more limited approach using
several components of EPR or product stewardship could be
adopted. Businesses could be required to place dedicated recep-
tacles, as is often done with trash and recycling bins, for ciga-
rette butts outside businesses where smokers congregate.
Further, they could be required to collect all butts discarded on
the ground rather than simply sweeping them into the street
where they may then be washed into storm drains and subse-
quently into aquatic environments. All outdoor public areas
should have adequate numbers of dedicated receptacles, or
smoking should be prohibited in all outdoor public areas. To
reduce the landﬁll burden of cigarette butt waste, households
and businesses in which cigarette butt waste is generated could
be required to collect all butts in special containers for collection
by waste collection services so as not to mix toxic cigarette butt
waste with other waste. Government waste collection agencies
could be required to adopt measures to safely dispose of cigarette
butt waste, including sending them back to the cigarette
manufacturer for destruction or recycling, or to establish
manufacturer fees to cover all of the mitigation costs created by
every pack of cigarettes sold in the jurisdiction. A Maine-style
product stewardship law would be far superior, as all of the costs
would be borne by the cigarette manufacturer.
Many states and communities have passed laws and ordi-
nances prohibiting smoking in parks and on beaches for public
health and environmental reasons. Maine has prohibited
smoking in all state parks and on state beaches; Puerto Rico
along with a large number of US municipalities have prohibited
smoking in parks,
and many municipalities have prohibited
smoking on beaches.
In 2010, the New York City Council,
supported by Mayor Bloomberg, proposed a total ban on
smoking in all public parks, beaches and walkways.
banning smoking in all state parks and beaches in California
passed both legislative bodies,
but was vetoed
Governor Schwarzenegger as ‘an improper intrusion of govern-
ment into people’s lives’. Notably, the Governor stated: ‘As we
have seen, marine debris and litter know no boundaries. I believe
a more appropriate response is to increase the ﬁnes and penalties
already in law for littering in our parks and on our beaches’.
There is likely to be further attention paid to cigarette butt
waste as additional economic analyses are available regarding
clean-up costs as well as indirect losses from environmental
degradation, impacts on tourism and the public nuisance costs
created by cigarette butt waste.
THE PLUSES AND MINUSES OF THE OPTIONS
The current single-product EPR laws in the US principal weak-
ness is that they rely very heavily on consumers’voluntary
compliance with proper disposal protocols, except where they
exchange an end-of-life product with a retailer for a replacement
product, such as automobile tyres and batteries, making effec-
tiveness uncertain and largely unascertainable. Another weak-
ness is that most such laws are essentially unenforceable with
regard to consumer compliance. With EPR, the producer pays
some or most of the cost of collecting and recycling end-of-life
goods voluntarily delivered by the consumer to a collection
point, usually provided by the local government. The local or
state government is often responsible for consumer education, if
any is undertaken.
In comparison, a Maine-style product stewardship law is very
comprehensive and places all of the costs, administration and
consumer education on the producer. In order to sell its product,
the producer must ﬁle a plan to accomplish this and it must be
approved by a governmental agency. The law would create
a collaborative environment involving the producer, the
government, consumers, environmental groups and other
stakeholders. The environmental groups would ﬁll a watchdog
role. The challenge with this approach is in generating the
political will of policymakers to adopt it.
In this Tobacco Control supplement, Smith and Novotny
describe the tobacco industry’s studies of smoker attitudes
about cigarette butts, and those attitudes are substantial barriers
to smoker voluntary compliance with any butt disposal
protocol. Thus, vigorous enforcement of littering laws will likely
be required early in the program until they change those atti-
Smith and Novotny also report on the efforts of the tobacco
industry to modify smoker behaviour concerning cigarette butt
disposal out of its fear of government regulation of butt disposal.
The efforts failed, largely because the tobacco industry did not
want to offend smokers. Traditional anti-littering campaigns
have clearly not had much, if any, effect on smoker behaviour.
Education of smokers about the environmental impact of their
butt disposal habits may have some effect, along with the threat
of littering ﬁnes. Because of the complex nature of smokers’
behaviour regarding cigarette butts, further research on effective
messaging is needed.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
The best solution to the cigarette butt waste problem is for
smokers to quit, whether for reasons of their own health, the
health of others, or the health of the environment where more
than 5 trillion cigarette butts are deposited each year. At
a minimum, however, the economic and administrative burdens
of cigarette butt waste should be taken off state and local
government agencies and taxpayers, and, following the princi-
ples of product stewardship and extended product responsibility,
tobacco manufacturers should shoulder the entire ﬁnancial
burden for the collection, transportation and safe disposal of
cigarette butt waste. The next best solution is to adopt
a comprehensive Maine-style product stewardship law covering
cigarette butt waste.
Acknowledgements The author thanks Dr Thomas E Novotny, San Diego State
University, San Diego, California, for his assistance in reviewing the manuscript.
Funding This work was funded by the University of California Tobacco-Related
Disease Research Program IDEA grant no. 17T-0014.
Competing interests None.
Contributors RLB was responsible for this work.
Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.
1. Novotny T, Lum K, Smith E, et al. Cigarette butts and the case for an environmental
policy on hazardous cigarette waste. Int J Environ Res Public Health
2. Litter Free Planet. Cigarette Butts: Exposing the Butts. http://www.litterfreeplanet.
com/id6.html (accessed 30 Oct 2010).
Tobacco Control 2011;20(Suppl 1):i45ei48. doi:10.1136/tc.2010.041301 i47
3. Keep America Beautiful. 2008 National visible Litter Survey and Litter Cost
Research Study. http://www.kab.org/site/PageServer?pagename¼focus_litter_
prevention (accessed 30 Oct 2010).
4. Micevska T, Warne M, Pablo F, et al. Variation in, and causes of, toxicity of
cigarette butts to a cladoceran and microtox. Arch Environ Contam Toxicol
5. Huerta-Fontela M, Galceran M, Ventura F. Stimulatory drugs of abuse in surface
waters and their removal in a conventional drinking water treatment plant. Environ
Sci Technol 2008;42:6809e16.
6. Slaughter E, Gersberg R, Watanabe K, et al. Toxicity of cigarette buttes, and
their chemical components, to the marine and freshwater ﬁsh. Tob Control
7. Hackendahl N, Sereda C. The dangers of nicotine ingestion in dogs. Vet Med
8. Schneider J, Decker C, Doyle A, et al.Estimates of the Costs of Tobacco Litter in
San Francisco and Calculations of Maximum Permissible Per-Pack Fee. Morristown,
NJ: Health Economics Consulting Group LLC, 2009. http://www.sfdpw.org/ftp/
9. City and County of San Francisco. Cigarette Litter Abatement Fee Ordinance, Ch.
105. (2009). http://library.municode.com/HTML/14131/level1/CH105CILIABFEOR.
10. Knight H. S.F’s 20-Cent Cigarette Fee Headed to Court? San Francisco Chronicle
(San Francisco, CA) 10 January 2010; Metro, C1. http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/
11. Hager E. A Call to Recycle Cigarette Butts [Blog 25 May 2010]. New York, NY: The
New York Times. http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/05/25/a-call-to-recycle-
cigarette-butts/ (accessed 16 Mar 2011).
12. Zhao J, Zhang N, Qu C, et al. Cigarette butts and their application in corrosion
inhibition for N80 steel at 908C in a hydrochloric acid solution. Ind Eng Chem Res
13. Kadir A, Mohajerani A, Roddick F, et al. Density, strength, thermal conductivity
and leachate characteristics of light-weight ﬁred clay bricks incorporating
cigarete butts. World Academy of Science, Engineering and Technology
14. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Combustion. http://www.epa.gov/
wastes/hazard/tsd/td/combustion.htm (accessed 27 Oct 2010).
15. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Scrap Tires. http://www.epa.gov/
wastes/conserve/materials/tires/index.htm (accessed 27 Oct 2010).
16. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Batteries. http://www.epa.gov/wastes/
conserve/materials/battery.htm#batteryrecycle (accessed 27 Oct 2010).
17. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Household Hazardous Waste. http://
www.epa.gov/wastes/conserve/materials/hhw.htm (accessed 27 Oct 2010).
18. University of Missouri Extension Ofﬁce of Waste Management. Household
Hazardous Waste. http://extension.missouri.edu/owm/hhw.htm (accessed 27 Oct
19. Rodgman A, Perfetti T. The Chemical Components of Tobacco and Tobacco Smoke.
Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2008:933.
20. Warne M, Patra R, Cole B, et al.Toxicity and a Hazard Assessment of Cigarette Butts
to Aquatic Organisms [abstract, Interact]. 21-25 Jul 2002, Sydney, Australia: Interact
2002 eProgramme and Abstract Book, 2002:1.
21. Kriebel D, Tickner J. Reenergizing public health through precaution. Am J Public
22. Goldstein B. The precautionary principle also applies to public health actions. Am J
Public Health 2001;91:1358e61.
23. Product Stewardship Institute. What is Product Stewardship? http://www.
productstewardship.us/displaycommon.cfm?an¼1&subarticlenbr¼55 (accessed 28
24. Short M. Taking back the trash: comparing european extended producer
responsibility and take-back liability to U.S. environmental policy and attitudes. Vand
J Transnat’l L 2004;37:1217e54.
25. Global Product Stewardship Council. http://productstewardshipcouncil.net/
(accessed 28 Oct 2010).
26. Sachs N. Planning the funeral at the birth: extended producer responsibility in the
European Union and the United States. Harvard Environ Law Rev 2006;30:51e98.
27. Product Stewardship Institute. Extended Product Responsibility State Laws as of
October 2010. http://www.productstewardship.us/displaycommon.cfm?
an¼1&subarticlenbr¼280 (accessed 28 Oct 2010).
28. LD 1631, An Act to Provide Leadership Regarding the Responsible Recycling, Maine
House of Representatives, 124th Sess. 2009. http://www.mainelegislature.org/legis/
bills/display_ps.asp?ld¼1631&PID¼1456&snum¼124 (accessed 28 Oct 2010).
29. California Penal Code x374 et Seq. (2010).
30. Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation. Municipalities with Smokefree
Parks Laws. http://www.no-smoke.org/pdf/SmokefreeParks.pdf (accessed 30 Oct
31. Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation. Municipalities with Smokefree
Beaches Laws. http://www.no-smoke.org/pdf/SmokefreeBeaches.pdf (accessed 30
32. Rosenberg N. Heated Debate at Hearing on Smoking Ban in Parks [Blog 14 October
2010]. New York, NY: The New York Times. http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/
%20in%20parks&st=cse (accessed 16 Mar 2011).
33. SB 4, California Legislature, 2009e10 Sess. 2010. http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/pub/
34. Schwarzenegger A. Veto Message, SB 4. 2010. http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/pub/
09-10/bill/sen/sb_0001-0050/sb_4_vt_20100503.html (accessed 16 Mar 2011).
i48 Tobacco Control 2011;20(Suppl 1):i45ei48. doi:10.1136/tc.2010.041301