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Commentary: Do You Know What the No. 1 Littered Item in the United States is on Roads and Beaches?


If you don’t know the answer to this question, you’re certainly not alone. Here’s a hint…it’s not plastic bags, plastic or glass beverage bottles or aluminum cans. Stumped? It turns out that you have a lot of company.

According to new research conducted by Legacy®, more than half of the Americans surveyed last month did not know that cigarette butts are the No. 1 littered item every year on U.S. roadways and beaches. In observance of Earth Day, Legacy is working to raise awareness about the negative impact cigarette filters and discarded cigarette butts have on our environment.

Research shows that cigarette butts have potentially toxic effects on ecosystems. In one laboratory test, one cigarette butt soaked in a liter of water was lethal to half of the fish exposed. Cigarette butts contain heavy metals that leach into waterways, posing a lethal threat to aquatic life. They are costly to local communities to clean up and dispose of as well. According to environmental cleanup reports, nearly 2 million cigarettes or cigarette filters/butts were picked up internationally from beaches and inland waterways as part of the annual International Coastal Cleanup in 2010, including more than one million from the U.S. alone.

Misperceptions abound about whether cigarette filters are readily biodegradable or inconsequential as litter. These toxic pieces of trash can only decompose under the most ideal conditions, and generally they merely break up into small particles of plastic waste. While a majority of those surveyed (78 percent) know that cigarette butts are not biodegradable and recognize their toxicity (89 percent), tobacco products are still the single most collected type of litter along U.S. roadways and on beaches.

In honor of Earth Day, let’s start a national conversation about this last acceptable form of litter. According to the tobacco industry-funded annual report, The Tax Burden on Tobacco 2011, 287 billion cigarettes were sold last year. Where did all those cigarette butts go? When you step over them on the streets where you live and work and at beaches and parks you enjoy, remember that cigarette butts are a potentially dangerous and costly burden. Help us bring awareness to this issue and start changing social norms around littering cigarette butts.

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Cheryl G. Healton, DrPH
President and CEO

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