By Yadira Friday, MPH | April 20, 2023
Project Coordinator - TECC, ETR
Earth Day, which is held every year on April 22nd, is an observance that encourages individuals to think about the impact that they make on the larger environment.
One way that humans impact our environment is through the creation and disposal of hazardous waste. When the topic of hazardous waste comes up, your mind may conjure up images of corrosive and toxic chemicals such as motor oil, pesticides, or paints and solvents.
Chances are that tobacco products don’t come immediately to mind; but as the most littered item in the world11, they should! This blog will describe the impact of tobacco product waste, as well as recommendations for how to dispose of it properly.
Most cigarettes on the market today contain a component called a filter. The tobacco industry first introduced cigarette filters in the 1950s as a way to respond to growing concerns over the connection between smoking and lung cancer. Filtered cigarettes were marketed to the public as a safer and healthier option, making them the preferred choice among many smokers. Cigarette filters are made from a fibrous plastic material called cellulose acetate.
Although these cellulose acetate microfibers resemble natural materials like cotton, they are not biodegradable (cannot be broken down naturally by organisms in the ecosystem) and take more than a decade to decompose into microfibers that we call microplastics. Cigarette filters in our environment release approximately 0.3 million tons of microfibers per year.1 These microfibers pollute aquatic habitats, soil, and have the potential to impact human health by contaminating the water we drink and the food we eat.2,3
In addition to the microplastics in filters, cigarette butts contain over 4000 chemicals known to be pesticides, insecticides, and human carcinogens.4 Cigarette butts also increase the risk of wildfires when they are not extinguished correctly prior to disposal.5
All of these environmental risks combined make cigarettes an important point of conversation this Earth Day. Here are some tips for disposing of cigarette butts in ways that are safer:
Electronic smoking devices (ESD), commonly known as e-cigarettes or vapes, can be used to deliver nicotine, cannabis, chemical flavorings, and other substances.6 These devices add a different level of complexity to the discussion of tobacco and cannabis products as hazardous waste because they have multiple components that make them difficult to categorize under just one type of waste.7
Many ESDs utilize single-use plastic cartridges that are not biodegradable and usually are not recyclable. These cartridges carry secondary disposal considerations because of the potentially toxic nature of the liquid within them, which are called e-liquids. E-liquids that contain nicotine are defined as acute hazardous waste under the Environmental Protection Agency’s waste code P075.8
Alternatively, if the e-liquid does not contain nicotine but contains cannabis then there are other considerations. Although two of cannabis’s primary compounds, THC and CBD, are not considered to be hazardous waste, the toxicity standards between states could still result in barriers to the proper disposal of devices used for cannabis products. State laws may prohibit the transportation of cannabis products across state lines which could keep some waste companies from accepting waste they cannot transport and dispose of.9
In addition to the ESD cartridges and their contents, ESDs are considered e-waste because they contain a battery. Lithium-ion batteries are D003 reactive hazardous waste, making them a potential fire risk when transported with other household recyclables.10
Combining all these elements makes a tricky device to dispose of safely! Below are some considerations when storing and disposing of ESDs:
Yadira Friday, MPH, (she/her) is a Project Coordinator with the Tobacco Education Clearinghouse of California (TECC) project at ETR. In her role, she provides social media technical assistance and training for CDPH/CTCP-funded projects. Yadira has worked in public health-funded projects like passenger safety, childhood lead poisoning prevention program, tobacco control, and oral health for over five years. She is passionate about helping communities advocate for themselves through policy work and culturally competent approaches. She can be reached at Yadira.Friday@etr.org
1. Green, D. S., Almroth, B. C., Altman, R., Bergmann, M., Gündoğdu, S., Warrier, A. K., Boots, B., Walker, T. R., Krieger, A., & Syberg, K. (2023). Time to kick the butt of the most common litter item in the world: Ban cigarette filters. The Science of the total environment, 865, 161256. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2022.161256
2. Joly, F. X., & Coulis, M. (2018). Comparison of cellulose vs. Plastic cigarette filter decomposition under distinct disposal environments. Waste Management, 72(February 2018), 349-353. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2017.11.023
3. Zhang, M., Tan, M., Ji, R., Ma, R., & Li, C. (2022). Current Situation and Ecological Effects of Microplastic Pollution in Soil. Reviews of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, 260(1),
4. Slaughter E, Gersberg RM, Watanabe K, et al Toxicity of cigarette butts, and their chemical components, to marine and freshwater fish Tobacco Control 2011;20:i25-i29.
5. Wildfires, air quality, cigarette butts: Smokefree Laws Save Money, lives. American Nonsmokers' Rights Foundation . https://no-smoke.org/wildfire-air-quality-and-cigarette-butts-smokefree-laws-save-money-lives/. Published June 18, 2018.
6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (U.S.) (2019, December 13). E-cigarette, or vaping, products visual dictionary. Retrieved April 12, 2023, from www.cdc.gov/tobacco/basic_information/e-cigarettes/pdfs/ecigarette-or-vaping-products-visual-dictionary-508.pdf
7. Pourchez, J., Mercier, C., & Forest, V. (2022). From smoking to vaping: a new environmental threat?. The Lancet. Respiratory medicine, 10(7), e63–e64. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(22)00187-4
8. United States Environmental Protection Agency EPA (2023, January 13). Frequent Questions about the Management Standards for Hazardous Waste Pharmaceuticals and Amendment to the P075 Listing for Nicotine Final Rule. EPA.gov. Retrieved April 12, 2023, from https://www.epa.gov/hwgenerators/frequent-questions-about-management-standards-hazardous-waste-pharmaceuticals-and#nicotine
9. Public Health Law Center (2021, February 11). What a Waste! Legally Disposing of E-cigarettes and Nicotine Products. Mitchell Hamline School of Law. Retrieved April 12, 3, from www.publichealthlawcenter.org/sites/default/files/inline-files/What-a-Waste-Legally-Disposing-of-E-Cigarettes-and-Nicotine-Products.pdf
10. United States Environmental Protection Agency EPA (2022, May 24). Used Lithium-Ion Batteries. EPA.gov. Retrieved April 12, 3, from https://www.epa.gov/recycle/used-lithium-ion-batteries
11. WHO raises alarm on tobacco industry environmental impact. (2022, May 31). World Health Organization International. Retrieved March 20, 2023, from https://www.who.int/news/item/31-05-2022-who-raises-alarm-on-tobacco-industry-environmental-impact#:~:text=%E2%80%9CTobacco%20products%20are%20the%20most,into%20our%20environment%20when%20discarded.