EU takes legal steps to tackle cigarette butt pollution

Majority of cigarettes contain cellulose acetate filters which leach nicotine and heavy metals before becoming microplastic pollution
20 October 2022 , By Steve Smethurst

EU Commission orders 11 member states to accelerate implementation of Single-Use Plastics Directive

The EU Commission is taking legal steps against 11 Member States, calling on them to step up the implementation of the Single-Use Plastics Directive to reduce the impact of certain plastic products on the environment and on human health.

Cigarette butts are toxic plastic pollution, and according to the World Health Organisation(WHO), almost all of the six trillion cigarettes sold globally contain a “poorly degradable” cellulose acetate filter. Dr Ruediger Krech, WHO Director of Health Promotion said: “Tobacco products are the most littered item on the planet, containing more than 7,000 toxic chemicals, which leach into our environment when discarded. Roughly 4.5 trillion cigarette filters pollute our oceans, rivers, city sidewalks, parks, soil and beaches every year.

The latest Bulletin of the World Health Organization put the cost of annual tobacco product waste in the UK at £49m.

The EU is taking legal steps against Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Ireland, France, Croatia, Latvia, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, and Finland. All must respond by late November.

John Roberts, Director of Kingdom LAS, which deals with litter, fly-tipping and anti-social behaviour on behalf of a number of local authorities in England and Wales, has called for a cultural change to litter.

Roberts said: “It has often been described as a civil offence - but it is not. If a person is found to be littering, they could face a fine of up to £2,500. This is a criminal offence.

“I believe we need to see a change in how litter is shown in the media. If you turn on the TV or a film we will see actors dropping litter, including cigarette ends, that wrongly reinforces that it is acceptable to litter. This need to change if we are ever going to eradicate the litter problem.”

Putting cigarette ends down the drain or leaving them on streets, pavements and roads could fuel a ticking environmental timebomb.”

Kingdom LAS has been working with Clean Up Britain to deliver presentations and education activity sessions to the next generation in schools and the public on the impact of litter.

Roberts said: “From these sessions we have understood that the real impact from litter is not common knowledge. Putting cigarette ends down the drain or leaving them on streets, pavements and roads could fuel a ticking environmental timebomb that is already blighting our landscapes and harming our precious green spaces.”

According to the European Commission, more than 80% of marine litter items are plastics, causing damage to the environment, including directly harming marine life and birds. When dissolved to microplastics, they can also enter the human food chain. 

Government ministers have pledged to step up efforts to reduce the problem. James Wood, a spokesperson for the Department for the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) told EHN Extra: “Last year, the government announced that it would be looking into options for tackling tobacco filter litter, including making the industry more financially responsible for the costs of cleaning up the litter created by their products.

Since then, we have commissioned the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) to assess a range of options. WRAP launched the world’s first Plastics Pact with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in the UK in 2018. This inspired a network of global Pacts, with one now on every populated continent. Each one is working towards a circular economy for plastics.

Wood added, “This [assessment] work is ongoing and due to complete later this year.”


Image credit: Shutterstock

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