Skip to main content

Turning the Tide on Plastic Pollution: The Role of Tobacco Product Waste 

Turning the Tide on Plastic Pollution: The Role of Tobacco Product Waste 

By ETR’s Alcohol, Tobacco, and Other Drugs (ATOD) Team | April 22, 2024

Earth Day, celebrated each year on April 22nd, invites us to look at our impact on the environment. It is a day for celebrating achievements of the environmental movement and increasing awareness about the importance of protecting our planet’s natural resources for future generations.1 

This year, the observance focuses on the issue of plastic pollution with a theme of “Planet vs. Plastics.”2 It is not just about the plastic bags, bottles, and straws we often hear about—Tobacco products, like cigarettes and e-cigarettes, are also a big part of the problem.  

While tobacco products might not be the first thing that comes to mind when we think of plastic waste, their environmental effect is large. Cigarette butts are the most frequently littered item in the U.S. In 2021, people cleaned up over 1.1 million cigarette butts from beaches and waterways around the world. This made cigarette butts the second most common trash found, right after food wrappers, plastic bags, and straws.3

A cigarette filter contains a type of plastic called cellulose acetate. This material is bad for the environment because it doesn’t break down easily.4 Additionally, e-cigarette products are now becoming a significant environmental concern.3,4 Our work aims to shed light on this issue and provide resources on the topic of the environmental impact of plastic tobacco product waste (TPW). 

The Impact of Plastics in Tobacco Products 


Plastics in Cigarettes

A cigarette filter, often referred to as a filter tip, is a part within a cigarette. The introduction of filters in cigarettes dates to the early 1950s. Nearly all commercial cigarettes have a filter made mainly from cellulose acetate, a type of plant-based plastic.5 The tobacco industry claims that cigarette filters make smoking safer, trapping harmful chemicals from the smoke, like tar and nicotine. Research indicates, however, that there is no health advantage to using cigarette filters and people who smoke cigarettes with filters face the same level of risk as those who smoke without them.5,6 Cigarette filters are also bad for the environment because, even after two years, most of the filter is still there and it can release harmful chemicals into the ground and water. This hurts the tiny life forms in the soil of beaches and can also lead to the death of animals.6,7 Annually, 4.5 trillion used filtered cigarettes end up as litter.7 Predictions suggest that by 2025, waste from cigarette butts will rise by 50%.6   

The deceptive practices of Big Tobacco with these filters endanger everyone, not just those that smoke. Cigarette waste, filled with microplastics, is polluting our environment globally. Studies indicate that these microplastics can harm our health, potentially causing issues like intestinal damage, infertility, and changes to our DNA.8 This issue is worrying, as billions of cigarette butts are thrown aside each year, littering our urban landscapes, waterways, and natural habitats.6 

Plastics in E-cigarettes 

E-cigarettes, though newer on the market, are just as impactful when it comes to plastic waste. The cartridges and pods in these devices are usually for one-time use and are made up of plastics and metals, making them more difficult to dispose of. As vaping becomes more popular, especially among young people, the environmental impact of these devices is increasing.9 
The Bureau of Instigative Journalism highlights a troubling pattern in how disposable e-cigarettes are thrown away, with five devices being tossed every second throughout the United States. This leads to 150 million disposable e-cigarettes being tossed each year.10 

Tobacco Product Disposal 


Disposing of Cigarettes 

The proper removal of cigarettes is an important step in reducing their environmental impact. Here are some guidelines for safer disposal:11 

  • Extinguish Completely: Always ensure cigarettes are completely put out before disposal. A cigarette that's still lit poses a fire risk and can cause additional harm. 
  • Use Firesafe Receptacles: Place cigarette butts in firesafe containers or ashtrays that are filled with sand. This helps in preventing accidental fires and properly contains the waste. 
  • Be Mindful of Location: Do not leave cigarettes burning unattended and be aware of your surroundings to avoid potential fire hazards. 
  • Consult Local Guidelines: Reach out to your local waste management authority to learn more about how to dispose of cigarette waste. They can provide information on the correct waste bins and recycling options if they are available. 

Disposing of E-cigarettes 

The risk to the environment from e-cigarette waste is especially serious because of its mix of plastics, metals, electronic components, batteries, and the harmful chemicals in vaping liquids.3 E-cigarettes don't naturally break down, even in extreme environmental conditions. When parts of e-cigarettes are thrown away in public areas they mix with natural materials and slowly break down into microplastics and dangerous chemicals. These contaminants are then transported by rain and wind into our waterways, negatively affecting water creatures and their habitats.12 

To tackle this problem, there are two recommended ways to get rid of e-cigarette parts: (1) You can take them back to the manufacturers or stores for recycling, or (2) You can clean them to remove nicotine and other residues, and then pack them in eco-friendly material to throw away with plastic trash.12,13 

For e-cigarette products, the disposal guidelines are more specific than cigarettes:13 

  • Battery Safety: Do not put e-cigarettes in your household trash or recycling. The lithium batteries can become damaged and cause fires. 
  • Household Hazardous Waste Collections: Dispose of e-cigarette waste responsibly by using local Household Hazardous Waste (HHW) collection sites to minimize environmental impact. 
  • Follow Manufacturer Guidelines: Many manufacturers have guidelines on how to get rid of their products safely. Review these guidelines to ensure you are handling waste responsibly. 

Our Role in a Healthier, Cleaner World 


ETR works to improve health and well-being for youth and communities, which inspires us to continue sharing important information about the impacts of TPW this Earth Day. The harmful effects of TPW, including its contribution to litter, economic burdens, fire hazards, and the release of harmful toxins into our environment, underscore the urgency of our advocacy.  
The Tobacco Education Clearinghouse of California (TECC), a project of ETR, plays a crucial role in combatting tobacco's harmful effects in California. TECC is a statewide technical assistance (TA) provider that supports the development and distribution of effective educational materials and social media messaging for CA Department of Public Health (CDPH) and CA Tobacco Prevention Program (CTPP)-funded projects at no cost. TECC’s site hosts free, high-quality, ready-to-use materials covering a wide range of topics.

The materials are designed for diverse audiences in a variety of formats and languages. A few educational materials that TECC provides about TPW are the "Keeping California Golden" and "Let’s Keep Our Tribal Lands Clean" fact sheets. "Keeping California Golden," available in English and Spanish, educates the public on the environmental and health impacts of TPW, urging collective action for a cleaner, healthier environment. Similarly, "Let’s Keep Our Tribal Lands Clean," also available in English and Spanish, specifically addresses the concerns within American Indian and Alaska Native communities, highlighting the need to challenge the norms around commercial tobacco use and its waste, while promoting responsibility and environmental management.  
UNDO, run by CDPH, is another invaluable resource that offers insights into the environmental damage caused by the tobacco industry. For over three decades, UNDO has been at the forefront of efforts to shield Californians from the tobacco industry's harmful practices. The initiative aims to promote healthier lives, reduce healthcare costs, foster tobacco-free communities, and cleanse the environment of tobacco-related toxic waste. UNDO also addresses the significant environmental repercussions of the tobacco industry, focusing on how it contributes to plastic pollution and releases harmful chemicals into our surroundings. 

Lastly, we want to mention Keep America Beautiful (KAB), a prominent national nonprofit established in 1953 known for its commitment to enhancing community environments. KAB's Cigarette Litter Prevention Program, initiated in 2002, specifically addresses the issue of TPW by focusing on reducing cigarette litter since it is the most prevalent form of litter in the U.S.

This initiative, the largest of its type in the nation, has effectively cut cigarette litter in half within the communities that have implemented the program, highlighting KAB’s significant role in promoting cleaner and more sustainable public spaces. With the support of a vast network of volunteers and partners, KAB demonstrates that collective action can lead to substantial environmental improvements. 

As we celebrate Earth Day, it's important to recognize the connection between our efforts and the broader health and sustainability of our planet. Let’s all contribute to fostering a healthier, more sustainable future for our communities and the environment. 


1. Evers, J. (2023a, October 19). Earth day. Education.  

2. Earth day 2024. Earth Day. (2024, March 12).  

3. Tobacco and the environment. Truth Initiative. (n.d.).  

4. Joly, F.-X., & Coulis, M. (2018). Comparison of cellulose vs. plastic cigarette filter decomposition under distinct disposal environments. Waste Management, 72, 349–353.  

5. Novotny TE, Hamzai LCellulose acetate cigarette filter is hazardous to human health. Tobacco Control Published Online First: 18 April 2023. doi: 10.1136/tc-2023-057925 

6. Tobacco Tactics. (2023, July 19). Cigarette filters. Retrieved from   

7. Tiny But Deadly: Your Butt on Plastic - Earth Day. (2024, March 11). Earth Day.,butts%20polluting%20our%20global%20environment. 

8. Campanale, C., Massarelli, C., Savino, I., Locaputo, V., & Uricchio, V. F. (2020). A Detailed Review Study on Potential Effects of Microplastics and Additives of Concern on Human Health. International journal of environmental research and public health, 17(4), 1212.   

9. Chapman, M. (n.d.). Rise of single-use vapes sending tonnes of lithium to landfill. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. 

10. Chapman, M. (n.d.). Lithium being trashed by the tonne as disposable vapes flood the US…. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism.  

11. Komatz, K. (2022, September 12). Fire prevention 52: Cigarette Butts (U.S. National Park Service). National Parks Service.,or%20ashes%20in%20the%20trash   

12. Ngambo, G., Hanna, E. G., Gannon, J., Marcus, H., Lomazzi, M., & Azari, R. (2023). A scoping review on e-cigarette environmental impacts. Tobacco prevention & cessation, 9, 30.   

13. Environmental Protection Agency. (2024, February 26). How to Safely Dispose of E-Cigarettes: Information for Individuals. EPA.,harmful%20chemicals%20to%20the%20environment.   

Sign up for the ETR Health Newsletter.

Social Media :

  • YouTube
  • LinkedIn
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Instagram