Smoking kills seven million people a year globally and it scars the planet through deforestation, pollution and littering. Details of the environmental cost of tobacco are revealed in a study on the global tobacco epidemic released in 2017 by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
There are more than one billion smokers in the world today, and if current trends continue, that number is expected to increase by another 60 per cent by 2025. Worldwide, approximately 10 million cigarettes are purchased a minute, 15 billion are sold each day and upwards of five trillion are produced and used on an annual basis.
Trillions of cigarette butts filled with toxic chemicals from tobacco smoke make their way into the global environment as discarded waste annually. The rest end up in landfills adding to the cocktail of chemicals cooking under pressure there. This waste is laced with chemicals, including arsenic and heavy metals, which can end up in the water supply. Cigarette butts decompose but are not biodegradable.
From growing the crop to packaging the cigarettes, producing tobacco utilises very substantial resources, releasing harmful chemicals in the soil and waterways, as well as significant amounts of greenhouse gases. Moreover, waste from tobacco production and packaging is the biggest component by count of litter worldwide.
“Tobacco not only produces lung cancer in people, but it is a cancer to the lungs of the earth,” said Armando Peruga, who coordinated the WHO’s Tobacco Free Initiative and reviewed the organisation’s new report.
Commercial tobacco farming is a worldwide industry that involves 124 countries and occupies 4.3 million hectares of agricultural land. About 90 per cent of it takes place in low-income countries such as China, Brazil and India.
Tobacco is intensely grown and this causes plants and the soil to be weak in natural defences. For this reason larger amounts of fertilisers and pesticides are used. The use of chemicals directly impacts the health of farmers. This is especially prominent in developing countries, where some chemicals that are banned in developed countries are still used
“Tobacco also takes away a lot of nutrients from the soil and requires massive amounts of fertiliser, a process that leads to degradation of the land and desertification, with negative consequences for biodiversity and wildlife,” Dr Peruga said.
Farming of tobacco also uses a surprisingly large amount of wood, rendering tobacco a driver of deforestation, one of the leading causes of climate change.
About 11.4 million metric tonnes of wood are utilised annually for the drying of the tobacco leaf, which is achieved through various methods, including wood fires.
That’s the equivalent of one tree for every 300 cigarettes, or 1.5 cartons. The study describes this as a significant cause for concern, citing “evidence of substantial, and largely irreversible, losses of trees and other plant species caused by tobacco farming”.
The World Health Organisation estimates that in 2012, 967 million daily smokers consumed approximately 6.25 trillion cigarettes worldwide.
“That means about 6,000 metric tonnes of formaldehyde and 47,000 metric tonnes of nicotine are released into the environment annually,” Dr Peruga noted.
Waste from tobacco production is the biggest component by count of litter worldwide
Tobacco smoke contains about 4,000 chemicals, at least 250 of which are known to be harmful to our health. It also contains climate-warming carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxides. “The combination of greenhouse gases from combustion is equivalent to about 1.5 million vehicles driven annually,” Dr Peruga said.
Second-hand smoke is particularly deadly as it contains twice as much nicotine and 147 times more ammonia than mainstream smoke, leading to close to one million deaths annually.
The study notes that some of these pollutants remain in the natural world (and our homes) as ‘third-hand smoke’ , accumulating in dust and surfaces indoors, and in landfills. Nicotine even resists treatment, polluting waterways and potentially contaminating water used for consumption.
Cigarette butts account for around 35 per cent of all items collected in coastal and urban clean-ups. Tossing a cigarette butt on the ground is still considered a socially acceptable form of littering in many countries.
Every stage of the production of a cigarette has negative effects on the environment and the people who are involved in manufacturing tobacco products, even before the health of smokers and non-smokers is affected.
The core of most cigarette filters is actually a form of plastic called cellulose acetate, which is very slow to decompose in our environment. Depending on the conditions of the area the cigarette butt is discarded in, it can take 18 months to 10 years for a cigarette filter to decompose.
Used cigarette filters are full of toxins, such as tar collected from filtering the cigarette smoke, which can leach into the ground and waterways, damaging living organisms that come into contact with them. Most filters are discarded with bits of tobacco still attached to them as well, further polluting our environment with nicotine, which is poisonous.
Cellulose acetate fibres in a cigarette filter are thinner than sewing thread and one single filter contains more than 12,000 of these plastic fibres. This means up to 60,000 trillion fibres are released into the global environment every single year. More chemicals are added to cigarettes to control the burn rate and to create an appealing ash as the cigarette burns.
Toxin-filled cigarette butts work their way into our waterways primarily through storm drains that dump into streams and lakes or the sea. Studies have shown that just one cigarette butt kills the micro-organisms present in approximately two gallons of fresh or salt water. Micro-organisms are at the bottom of the marine food chain. The effect of pollution on the natural world at this level is devastating. Moreover, those tiny bits of tobacco left attached to cigarette filters carry more toxins than the filters do themselves.
Cigarette butts contaminate ecosystems and habitats and poison marine life and other wildlife as they are mistaken for food.
I extrapolated some data on the Maltese situation from a recent survey by Eurostat. We have around 100,000 smokers (21 per cent of daily population), say, on average smoking 15 cigarettes a day. That translates into a consumption of 550 million cigarettes annually and, consequently, 550 million cigarette butts or filters, with varying lengths of cigarette residues attached to them, ending up as litter – 1.74m per square kilometre – every single year.
Most of these end up in our environment on land and sea. What goes to the landfill is not ok. The landfill leaches its toxic mix into the ground and emits its poisonous gases into the air we breathe. Moreover these filters break down and release 6.6 billion plastic micro-fibres, hardly visible to the naked eye that we no doubt have been drinking and eating for decades.
There is no sustainable level of uncontrolled toxic waste that is acceptable. The solution is either to stop smoking or at least for smokers to be considerate and bin their cigarette ends for recycling, as wherever else they discard them they will continue to sow the seeds of death.
David Marinelli is a researcher on human ecology and sustainability.