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SFU prof wants tobacco companies held responsible for cigarette butts

Kelley Lee is working to bring awareness to danger of discarded cigarettes

Each year, Canadians litter 16 billion cigarette butts.  - Photo courtesy of University Communications
Each year, Canadians litter 16 billion cigarette butts. - Photo courtesy of University Communications

Most of us are well aware of the health risks associated with tobacco products, but what isn’t often given as much attention are its environmental impacts.

Colleagues of SFU professor Kelley Lee are trying to change this with their research, and shed light on the environmental impacts of cigarette butts by trying to hold tobacco companies accountable for the waste they produce.

Lee says that the tobacco industry has often resisted taking responsibility for managing the post production waste they release into our environment. “People don’t understand the environmental impact [and that] this is a kind of third hand smoke — the environmental residues tobacco products create,” she said.

A common misconception is that cigarette butts are biodegradable, instead of toxic chemicals that are cumulative, and people have stopped looking at them like litter.

“The reason [people don’t notice them] is because they wash down the drains into places you no longer see them,” commented Lee. They are also found found in the stomachs of fish and other sea animals, or eaten by pets.

Lee and her colleagues undertook an experiment where they put a small cigarette butt in a litre of water alongside some fish. Said Lee, “Half of the fish died off from just one butt, demonstrating how toxic they really are.” A key concern for Lee is making sure people understand how harmful these cigarette butts can be if allowed to be released into our environment or waterways.

Currently, many manufacturing companies implement environmental initiatives and safe recycling programs, with some returning and disposing of paint products, light bulbs, batteries, and electronic items, as well as  charging environmental fees. Dr. Lee says that a paradigm shift is required in order to hold tobacco companies responsible and create extended producer responsibility, in ways similar to other manufacturing companies, to require them to responsibly dispose of the waste that their products create.

Around the world, according to Lee, smokers throw five trillion cigarette butts on the ground annually. Every year, 16 billion cigarette butts in Canada alone are getting washed into our waterways and eventually our oceans, he says.

A potential solution, according to Lee and her colleagues, would include take-back schemes as well as a number of other things for which companies would be held responsible, including clean up, waste reduction, redesigning the product, or even placing environmental warnings alongside health labels on tobacco packaging.

“They need to consider the whole product life cycle,” argued Lee.

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