In 2014, Rochelle Byrne organized a local shoreline clean-up in her community and found that the annual event would be an insufficient solution to the area’s environmental pollution. That’s when she funded A Greener Future, an aptly named community-based environmental conservation effort that combats waste generation and mismanagement.
Nicole Henderson, the program coordinator at A Greener Future, states that the “clean-up inspired Rochelle to embark on a journey to raise awareness about the plastic pollution problem, educate people, and advocate for a greener futurefor years to come.”
When we think of environmental degradation and pollution, the images that first emerge in our minds are felled trees, oil leaks, and forest fires. While these sorts of events have a significant impact on the environment, it is important to consider factors that are believed by many to be insignificant contributors to pollution—such as cigarette litter.
Every year, 4.5 trillion cigarette filters—the leftover product of the cigarette that does not disintegrate during smoking—are casually flicked out onto streets or crushed underfoot at outdoor cafes and parks. One study found that nearly 75 per cent of smokers “simply dropped [cigarette butts] on the ground, or out of their car.” These filters, also known as cigarette butts, are extremely harmful to the environment despite their size. According to Henderson, they account for 78 per cent of litter found at shoreline clean-ups.
In broader terms, managing cigarette butt disposal is a significant aspect of waste management. The issue has garnered increased attention in recent years in the form of anti-littering campaigns, such as Butt Blitz, an event organized by A Greener Future.
Professor David Passmore teaches ENV320: Managing Our Waste, a course that addresses the philosophical, social, and management challenges associated with waste disposal worldwide. He identifies waste generation and waste management as “one of the four great environmental concerns of our time,” along with “climate change, biodiversity loss, and desertification.” According to Professor Passmore, part of the ongoing pollution and waste generation crisis includes the increasing issue of “non-essential use and discard of plastics,” including plastics such as those found in cigarette butts. But how exactly do cigarette butts impact the environment?
Cigarette litter is primarily made of a plastic material called cellulose acetate. As the butts break down, they become microplastics, which can be ingested by wildlife. Cigarette butts also contain more than 130 chemicals, according to Henderson. When discarded, the chemicals from filters contaminate water and soil, inhibit plant growth, and create toxic conditions for the surrounding wildlife. Another study found that the presence of cigarette butts in soil affect germination success, shoot length, and root biomass.
In 2019, a National Geographic article on cigarette waste stated that the microplastics present in cigarette filters “are an increasing hazard in waterways and oceans,” with evidence suggesting that a cigarette butt discarded in a litre of water “kills half the fish.”
To address the sources of plastic pollution, A Greener Future organizes events that involve the community in cleaning the environment and raising awareness of the harmful effects of plastic litter. The latest of their events, Butt Blitz 2021, is a nationwide initiative focused on cigarette waste clean-up and recycling with the help of volunteers, as well as highlighting the harmful effects of cigarette waste. First held in 2015, Butt Blitz has been responsible for the removal of over 2.1 million cigarette butts from the environment.
However, as with all public events, the pandemic forced organizations to change their traditions and adapt to changes. The same was true for Butt Blitz 2021. The event, which was previously held on a single day with volunteers joining together to clean up cigarette waste, now involves an independent online component, which allow volunteers to participate across Canada, creating “an even greater impact.” The goal is to remove a million cigarette butts from the environment by the end of September.
Henderson states that, once the cigarette waste is collected, it is given a “second life.” Millions of discarded cigarette butts are collected by volunteers and sent to TerraCycle, an organization that recycles the “non-recyclable.” The tobacco and paper found in cigarette butts are separated from the cellulose acetate and composted. The plastic remainder is melted and formed into pellets, which are then used to make plastic lumber. “The lumber can be used for a variety of things such as park benches, picnic tables, decks, playground equipment, and much more,” explains Henderson.
The future of Butt Blitz looks bright. When asked about future initiatives, Henderson states that there are plans to “operate a hybrid version of the [initiative] through a mix of in-person and online volunteer opportunities.” This will allow them to reach a wider part of the community. A Greener Future also expresses their hopes to establish long-term initiatives, such as a “cigarette butt recycling drop-off that will operate year-round.”
Readers can support A Greener Future and Butt Blitz 2021 by keeping up to date with the progress made throughout the month of September through Instagram (@agreenerfuture) and the progress dashboard on their site. Readers can also share the initiative with others to spread awareness. Updates are also available through A Greener Future’s newsletter on their website, which readers can sign up for to receive notifications of the next Butt Blitz event.