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EnvironmentThe Story of Plastic

Cigarette butts are toxic plastic pollution. Should they be banned?

Trillions of cigarette butts are thrown into the environment every year, where they leach nicotine and heavy metals before turning into microplastic pollution.

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This article was created in partnership with the National Geographic Society.

Smokers around the world buy roughly 6.5 trillion cigarettes each year. That’s 18 billion every day. While most of a cigarette’s innards and paper wrapping disintegrate when smoked, not everything gets burned. Trillions of cigarette filters—also known as butts or ends—are left over, only an estimated third of which make it into the trash. The rest are casually flung into the street or out a window.

“There's something about flicking that cigarette butt,” says Cindy Zipf, executive director of Clean Ocean Action. “It's so automatic.”

Cigarette filters are made of a plastic called cellulose acetate. When tossed into the environment, they dump not only that plastic, but also the nicotine, heavy metals, and many other chemicals they’ve absorbed into the surrounding environment.

A recent study found that cigarette butts inhibit plant growth. They also routinely get into waterways, and eventually oceans.

Zipf said cigarette butts have long been at or near the top of the list of items her organization finds during beach cleanups. The billions more that remain...

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