St. Lawrence community fighting ‘tsunami’ of cigarette waste

By Cynthia Wan, WRG –

While discarded cigarette butts are recognized as a serious cause of litter and a nuisance to pick up, the substantial pollution and damage they cause is taken less seriously.

Cigarette butts are one of the top single-use plastics. As litter, they unleash toxic chemicals that severely contaminate local land, water and living organ­isms.

But while Environment and Climate Change Canada and Health Canada acknowledge these butts as the most frequent­ly found microplastic in aquat­ic environments, they do not target cigarette filters as part of the federal government’s goal to achieve zero plastic waste in Canada by 2030.

In an effort to address the issues of pollution, chemical leaching and microplastics, the St. Lawrence Neighbourhood Association Waste Reduction Group (SLNA-WRG) has part­nered with the waste manage­ment company TerraCycle and the St. Lawrence Market Busi­ness Improvement Area to pilot a cigarette butt recycling pro­ject.

This initiative involves install­ing and servicing 24 free butt receptacles outside local food-based businesses. The promi­nent locations of the receptacles encourages community mem­bers to deposit their cigarette butts in real time. TerraCycle then saves them from being sent to landfill by recycling them.

According to the World Health Organization, cigarette butts are the most abundant form of plas­tic waste, with about 4.5 trillion of them polluting our global environment. They produce an estimated 1.69 billion pounds (767 kilograms) of toxic gar­bage each year.

An article in a recent issue of Environment International calls discarded butts an environmen­tal hazard for aquatic organisms because “they contain more than 5,000 chemicals, such as nico­tine, metals, and polycyclic ar­omatic hydrocarbons.” Among these, “at least 150 compounds are considered highly toxic, mainly because of their carcino­genic and mutagenic potential.”

But the problem is not lim­ited to the ingredients in ciga­rette tobacco. Almost all of the 6 trillion cigarettes sold global­ly each year have plastic filters made with cellulose acetate, which degrades poorly.

The City of Toronto’s most recent litter audit says cigarette butts, accounting for 18.1% of all small litter, are the sec­ond-most identifiable littered item after chewing gum. This is despite the fact that 10,300 lit­ter bins for garbage, recycling and cigarette butts are scattered across Toronto’s streets. The butts they collect go to landfill rather than being recycled, mak­ing these landfills a source of chemical leaching and plastic waste.

As a community, the St. Law­rence Neighbourhood is well positioned to tackle this global issue by changing people’s atti­tudes and behaviours. Installing recycling receptacles outside food-based establishments helps to reduce the cigarette waste on local streets and raise awareness about the issue.

The response from communi­ty businesses has been positive, as can be seen by the growing number of receptacles through­out the St. Lawrence Neigh­bourhood.

The SLNA-WRG encourages all residents and visitors to keep an eye out for these new recep­tacles and, whenever possible, to use them. Placing cigarette butts in these new receptacles is a small step to reduce your envi­ronmental footprint while keep­ing the environment and fellow community members healthy and safe.

Founded in 2019, the SL­NA-WRG’s objective is to help the St. Lawrence Neighbour­hood change its consumption patterns to reduce waste and counter climate change. To par­ticipate or learn about current initiatives, contact [email protected].