According to a report by Ocean Conservancy, the top 10 marine litters of the 2018 ICC were, for the first time, all made from plastic . And cigarette butts (smoked cigarette filters) are number 1 on the list.
Most people, even regular smokers, think cigarette filters are made from cotton. That’s perhaps the reason why most smokers throw away cigarette butts on the street, or even in the sewers. In fact, most modern cigarette filters are made from “Cellulose Acetate”, a form of plastic that takes 12 years to fully degrade in nature. And during the degradation process, average 12,000 Cellulose Acetate microfibers in a single cigarette filter contribute to the “plastic microfibers problem”--they absorb hydrophobic organic pollutants in the waterways and being consumed by the planktons which constitute the bottom of the marine food chain.
Before the 1950’s, only 0.5% of all cigarettes on the market have filters, and the purpose of the filters was not to retain toxic chemicals--“Moist lips are thrilling lips! Keep them soft, alluring.” So proclaimed a 1936 ad for a novelty cigarette, designed for women. At the time, almost all cigarettes were unfiltered. Companies sometimes added special mouthpieces — called beauty tips, often made of cork — for women. After all, what seductress would want to be seen picking tobacco flecks off her tongue? 
It was only later in the 1950’s, when E. Cuyler Hammond, Ph.D., and Daniel Horn, Ph.D. confirmed the cause and effect relationship of smoking and lung cancer in an August 7, 1954 “Journal of the American Medical Association” article . Since then, more and more tobacco companies added “filters” to their cigarettes; and until 1975, about 90% of the boxed cigarettes contained filters made from the plastic “Cellulose Acetate”. However the filters only offer psychological comforts to smokers--the plastic filters only retain about 2% of all chemicals from a burning cigarette. And not only smoked cigarette filters, even unsmoked cigarette filters are toxic to marine lives . Therefore as a scientist said: “cigarette filters are the deadliest fraud in our time”.
Not only the ineffectiveness on cancer prevention of the “Cellulose Acetate” filters, what’s more concerning is how people take cigarette butts for granted, thinking they are natural material and throw them all over the place--it can be the most abundant plastic litters on the street with few people realizing it, and now the number one of all marine litters.
Since May the 4th 2019, Wild at Heart Legal Defense Association Taiwan has weekly campaigns on the streets advocating that cigarette butts are plastic. And not only do we ask smokers to throw the cigarette butts in the proper bins, we also aim to ask international tobacco industries to phase out plastic filters. In a brand audit of 2186 cigarette butts gathered in the streets of Taipei, we found about 40% of the litters are products of “Japan Tobacco International”, followed by “Philip Morris International”, “Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor Company” and “British American Tobacco International”. Our ultimate goal is to stop all tobacco industries using plastic material for cigarette filters. After all, the ultimate measure is to stop it at the source. Cigarette butts are now the number one plastic litters in the coastline and on the streets, and they also belong to “single-use plastics”. We have to take this issue seriously in order to “Break Free From Plastic”.
Zero Waste Campaigner,
Wild at Heart Legal Defense Association, Taiwan
GAIA East Asia Regional Advisory Committee Member