Resolve to reduce the most littered item in the world

Keep Durham Beautiful encourages responsible cigarette butt disposal
Jan. 07, 2013 @ 12:24 PM

The start of a new year has always been a time for looking forward to the coming year. It's a time to reflect on the changes we want to make for a healthier year ahead.

Quitting smoking consistently ranks among the top 10 most common New Year’s resolutions. While quitting smoking is not for everyone, smokers and their friends can still make a difference by resolving to keep cigarettes off the ground and out of our water.

While most people know that littering is wrong, many smokers erroneously believe that throwing down cigarette butts is not litter. Cigarette butts are, in fact, the most littered item in the United States and the world, according to the American Legacy Foundation, despite a significant decline in smoking among Americans in recent decades.

Flicking cigarette butts on the ground, putting them in planters and tossing them into storm drains and waterways is littering. Most smokers litter because they underestimate the impact of one cigarette butt.

What people don’t realize is that litter attracts more litter. Smokers are more likely to litter if the environment contains any type of litter, not just cigarette butts. Too few ash receptacles add to the prevalence of cigarette butt litter, especially at transition points where a smoker must extinguish a cigarette before proceeding.

Why does it matter? Cigarette butts harm the environment and do not disintegrate. About 95 percent of cigarette filters are composed of cellulose acetate, a form of plastic that takes decades to degrade. Three things can happen to a cigarette butt on the ground:

-- It sits on the ground attracting more litter. This creates a sense that no one cares, leading to more community disorder and crime.

-- A local business or government pays staff to pick it up, which costs American businesses and taxpayers. Keep America Beautiful found in a 2009 national litter survey that the overall littering rate for cigarette butts is 65 percent, and tobacco products comprise 38 percent of all U.S. roadway litter. This study suggests that public, private, and institutional organizations spend at least $11.5 billion annually in direct costs to clean up litter. Businesses pay 80 percent of this cleanup cost, while cities and counties pay another 9 percent.

-- It washes into a storm drain, contaminates local water sources and sickens wildlife. Filters and leftover tobacco are toxic to aquatic life. Cigarette butts thrown on the ground wash into streams where fish and birds can mistake them for food. If not eaten, they can eventually make their way to our drinking water sources.

What is the impact of local ordinances? Now that Durham County and the City of Durham have banned smoking in most public spaces, including bus stops and parks, we will ideally see fewer cigarette butts on the ground. If someone smokes where there are no ash receptacles, it is their responsibility to stub out and save their filter until they can get to a trash can. Keep Durham Beautiful, along with the Durham Area Transit Authority, distributes free pocket ash trays for just this purpose.

Get the facts! Contact Keep Durham Beautiful to volunteer in our cigarette litter prevention program or to receive a free pocket ash tray so you can do your part to keep our community and our waterways beautiful. For more information, visit or

About Keep Durham Beautiful

Keep Durham Beautiful, a non-profit affiliate of Keep America Beautiful, engages and inspires individuals to take greater responsibility for their community environment. Be sure to like us at or follow us at