The unfiltered truth: cigarettes’ hidden plastic problem

Someone looking surprised whilst holding up a newspaper which details a story about the amount of plastic found in cigarette butts.
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The unfiltered truth: cigarettes’ hidden plastic problem

By Alex Robinson 13th October, 2022

New Hubbub research reveals that only 1 in 4 smokers (28%) realise that cigarette butts are made from plastic. In fact, more smokers (36%) believe the white fluffy material in the filter is cotton wool, when in truth it’s made from a type of plastic called cellulose acetate and contains thousands of chemicals.

Small butt, big problem

Why does this matter? Well, cigarette butts are the most littered item in the world: only about one-third of the 6.5 trillion cigarettes smoked every day are though to find their way into a bin. They release microplastics and leach out toxic chemicals that can be lethal to plants and animals. And yet despite their ubiquity and almost unique harmfulness, they don’t get the same attention as other plastic pollution. We want to change that.

Our research shows that a big part of the problem in the UK is a lack of awareness - people don't know what's in their butt. A third of smokers (34%) believe it takes less than a year for a cigarette butt to decompose. The truth is it never ‘decomposes’ and can take up to 10 years to start breaking down into microplastics. More than a quarter (28%) admit to dropping their cigarette butts down the drain – a direct route to our water ways and oceans. However, there is hope: once they know it’s plastic most smokers (57%) say they’d be more willing to look for an ashtray and a staggering 34% say they’re more likely to quit smoking altogether.

Check out #PlasticButts in action

Calling out the last ‘socially acceptable’ type of litter

Today, Hubbub has teamed up with Newham Council to take over the streets surrounding Stratford Station, the busiest train station in the UK to raise awareness of cigarettes’ plastic content. From taking over billboards and a pop-up newsstand to “talking butts” and a one-off giant version of our Ballot Bin voting ashtray, eye-catching interventions will help the invisible scourge of cigarette litter be “seen”. If you’re in the area, drop by, cast your vote and find out what cigarettes themselves have to say about the issue... You can’t miss it!

Illustrations by Yee Poon

Cigarettes are the last socially acceptable form of litter. Raising awareness of the plastic issue among smokers and non-smokers alike is an essential first step towards creating a new social norm. We’ll be monitoring the response to our campaign to see which messages and interventions really stick – but of course it’ll take a much wider push to start moving the needle on this issue.

What needs to change?

In the short term, we know we need to make it easy for smokers to do more to raise awareness about what cigarette butts and filters are made from and help encourage smokers to dispose of their butts responsibly. 55% of smokers surveyed say there are not enough cigarette bins at bus stops, 51% said the same for taxi ranks and outside supermarkets. These are the places we should target first. Hubbub’s Ballot Bin reduces cigarette litter by around 46% - but we know from our award-winning Neat Streets BCP campaign that with the right location it can be as much as 73%.

And, given that cash-strapped councils around the UK are forking out around £40m a year to deal with clearing up cigarette butts, we believe the tobacco industry should cough up – and accelerate plans to get rid of the plastic in cigarette butts altogether.

If you’d like to share the news about #PlasticButts then please click here for assets and photos to share on your channels. To get involved in the campaign or find out how Ballot Bins might help where you are, then please do get in touch.

See Hubbub in action 

From Community Fridges that cut food waste to Ballot Bins that halve cigarette litter, our campaigns show what taking action that's good for the environment looks like in practice.

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