Cigarette Butt pollution

There are many substances that get deposited on streets and little of this pollution is removed from stormwater before being dumped into rivers.  Street Department personnel spread salt and sand on icy roads in winter.  People throw trash and cigarette butts out their car window or it blows out of the bed of trucks.  Vehicles leak oil and other lubricants, tires shed hydrocarbons, and exhaust pipes emit gases and fluids.  There are many substances that unintentionally and intentionally get washed down the drains and into storm sewers that feed downstream drinking water.  All of these substances accumulate on roads along with natural debris such as sticks, leaves, and dirt.

According to Keep America Beautiful, Inc. (KAB), the nation’s largest volunteer-based, non-profit organization, “There are over 51 billion pieces of litter on our nation’s roadways, 4.6 billion of which are larger than four inches in size.”  Cleaning up litter costs almost $11.5 billion annually and tobacco products are the largest volume (38%) of litter.”  KAB conducted its first litter study in 1969 and its latest study in 2009.  “The visible litter (larger than 4 inches) on rural interstate and primary roads has decreased approximately 61% from 1969 to 2009.  Paper, metal, glass, and beverage container litter decreased significantly; however, the incidence of plastic items in the litter stream increased over 165%.  Plastic litter ends up in storm drains and eventually in our waterways causing significant harm to marine life or on land to wildlife.”

Municipal street and sanitation departments clean streets once every few months with street sweeping equipment and vacuum out sediment traps beneath storm grates once a year or less in an effort to collect this debris.  This level of frequency is hardly enough to capture the majority of litter deposited on our streets and highways.  Waste water treatment facilities try to remove the sediment and litter, but during heavy rain events most of the water goes straight into rivers and eventually ends up in the oceans.  Some cities always send storm water straight to the river.

Discarded cigarette butts are a major source of water pollution.   “It’s pretty clear there is no health benefit from filters. They are just a marketing tool. And they make it easier for people to smoke,” said Thomas Novotny, a professor of public health at San Diego State University. “It’s also a major contaminant, with all that plastic waste.  It seems like a no-brainer to me that we can’t continue to allow this.”

Brian Deurloo, a former oil and gas company executive agrees.  “There’s no such thing as conservative or liberal water. It is everybody’s water. It should be clean. Because clean water is a good thing™.”  Sitting outside a pub during a family vacation to Boston in 2015 Brian was disgusted by the thousands of cigarette butts littering the cobblestones at our nation’s oldest pub.  He thought about this litter washing down the storm drains and ending up in the ocean and decided to do something about it.  He read about how toxic cigarette butts are for aquatic organisms and believed some type of stormwater filtration system was needed.

Similar to how most inventors come up with big ideas the problem rolled around in the back of his mind until early one morning he woke up with an idea he thought might work.  “It was 2:38 a.m. on his daughter’s 8th birthday in 2016 when Deurloo said he woke up with an idea: a stormwater filter that could be installed just about anywhere, easily serviced and effective against stormwater pollution without causing flooding.  By 4 a.m., he was at Walmart buying supplies to create a prototype.”

After building a prototype of his design and filing multiple patents, he entered his plan into a local startup competition called the Wyoming Technology Business Center Casper Startup Challenge.  “He was one of the winners of the competition earning seed money, mentorship and office space in the business center giving him time to prove the concept”.  He then rented space in a larger building to build and further test his design.  He installed the first Gutter Bin stormwater filtration system in June 2016 in Sheridan Wyoming, where Brian grew up and a company was born.

Together, with a group of investors who are also passionate about cleaning up the environment, Brian has started an environmental technology company called Frog Creek Partners.  He has since installed Gutter Bins throughout Wyoming, Colorado and California and the Gutter Bin is now available nation-wide.  It’s that kind of passion that can make a difference in tackling intractable problems.

Recently I spoke with Brian about his patent pending storm water filtration system called the Gutter Bin® with its replaceable Mundus Bag™ water filters (shown here).  Brian describes his system as a “coffee filter” for storm drains.  Brian is a mining engineer who worked in the fossil fuel industry most of his life. He has worked in coal mines, developed coal gasification projects around the world, and has been an executive manager for a US gas and oil company.  It was obvious listening to him that his life’s experience has made him a practical, capable, and hardworking person; character traits that will surely increase the likelihood of his being successful in his own business.  Like most successful inventors he didn’t just have a good idea he went to work seeing it take form…and continues to improve on it.  He is one of those rare people that enjoy getting their hands dirty; someone I can totally relate to!

Stormwater Management

Most people don’t really pay much attention to pollution or stormwater management.  We can recognize curbs, gutters and storm drains and understand their purpose is to funnel water off the streets.  More likely we only notice stormwater when drains are clogged or broken.  We are impatient when a road is blocked for repairs and we have to wait in a long line of traffic to get around it.  So most of the time we only notice storm water management when the system doesn’t work or when it is an inconvenience.  We are fortunate enough to live in a country with sewer systems and flush toilets, our wastes are literally out-of-sight and out-of-mind.  And that’s a big part of the problem…waste water and stormwater are two very different things.

Sanitation engineers label waste water according to its source.  The water in your toilet is “black water,” contaminated with sewage (feces and urine).  The water that drains from your baths, showers, sinks or washing machines is “gray water” that may contain chemicals but does not contain sewage.  Stormwater is surface water that originates from precipitation and snowmelt.

Every large US city sits atop miles and miles of pipes that carry all these types of water.  Black and gray water are carried in sanitary sewer pipes to a wastewater treatment plant where it is filtered, treated and discharged.  “The storm sewer is a system designed to carry rainfall runoff and other drainage.  It is not designed to carry sewage or accept hazardous wastes.  The runoff is carried in underground pipes or open ditches and discharges untreated into local streams, rivers and other surface water bodies.  Storm drain inlets are typically found in curbs and low-lying outdoor areas.  Some older buildings have basement floor drains that connect to the storm sewer system.”

Older eastern US cities built combined sanitary and storm sewer systems with pipes that carried both, but unfortunately during times of heavy rain events the volume of water is often larger than what the treatment facilities were designed to handle.  Waste water facilities are typically designed to handle sanitary sewage, and when the volume of inflow is too high (as during a heavy rain storm) the overflow is sent directly to the river without any treatment.  It has long been the adage that dilution is the solution to pollution, but we know that no longer works.

Civil engineers started designing separate systems and most of the cities built west of the Mississippi River have separate sanitary and storm sewer systems (MS4) where stormwater is always discharged directly to the watershed untreated and unfiltered.  Once a sewage treatment plant (or a business with waste water treatment) has ‘cleaned’ its water it is sent to the river usually via a pipe.  All ‘point’ sources that discharge water to rivers or lakes are regulated under the Clean Water Act.  They must obtain a permit, monitor and report their output for regulated pollutants.  Non-point sources do not have pipes, monitoring, or reporting.  This most often includes entities such as such as agriculture, in particular nutrient runoff from farm land.  Unfortunately even treated sewage water still contains many contaminants that are simply too cost prohibitive to remove.  For example recent studies have shown that opioids are contaminated waste water treatment discharge.

Cigarette Butt Pollution

Concern over second hand smoke led to most US cites to ban indoor smoking and smokers moved out doors where they often throw butts on the ground.  In addition drivers toss butts out their vehicle’s windows.  How big a pollution problem are they?  Discarded cigarette butts are carried with runoff from streets to drains, to rivers, and ultimately to the ocean and its beaches.  Cigarette filters are the single most collected item picked up from beaches every year.  All of the cigarettes sold in the US are filtered and the discarded “butt” is contaminated with tar, nicotine, and other tobacco additives that are known to be carcinogenic and/or toxic.

Although scientists have proven that smoking filtered cigarettes does not protect your health American tobacco companies continue to advertise filtered cigarettes as healthier because smokers want to believe it. “The trillions of cigarette butts generated each year throughout the world pose a significant challenge for disposal regulations, primarily because there are millions of points of disposal, along with the necessity to segregate, collect and dispose of the butts in a safe manner, and cigarette butts are toxic, hazardous waste.”   “One cigarette butt soaked in a liter of water for 96 hours leaches out enough toxins to kill half of the fresh or salt water fish exposed to them.”    Tobacco plants produce nicotine in their tissue to keep insects away.  The residual nicotine in cigarette butts is a powerful insecticide. “With 5.6 trillion filtered cigarettes consumed worldwide in 2002, and nine trillion expected by 2025, the global environmental burden of cigarette filters is also significant.  It is estimated that 1.69 billion pounds (845,000 tons) of butts wind up as litter worldwide per year. 

Cigarette butts are also coming under greater scrutiny by the European Union. “Members of European Parliament (MEPs) agreed that reduction measures should also cover waste from tobacco products, in particular cigarette filters containing plastic.  It would have to be reduced by 50% by 2025 and 80% by 2030.  One cigarette butt can pollute between 500 and 1000 litres of water, and thrown on the roadway, it can take up to twelve years to disintegrate. They are the second most littered single-use plastic items”

Cigarette filters are made of cellulose acetate, a form of plastic that is non-biodegradable.  As many as two-thirds of cigarette butts are littered each year, according to Novotny, who founded the Cigarette Butt Pollution Project.  If we assume it takes a decade for cigarette butts to disintegrate and multiply 10 years times 4.5 trillion butts per year thrown on the ground, we start to get the idea of just how large is the pollution problem.  Yes, the paper cover over the filter is biodegradable but cellulose acetate filter fibers are not.  Laboratory studies show that the cellulose acetate fibers are photodegradable but not biodegradable.  They mainly disintegrate and disperse into the environment and no one really knows what happens to these microfibers in the environment but it is likely that they are being consumed by fish.  Tobacco companies take the position that proper disposal of these toxic waste products is the responsibility of the consumer.

Water Resources

Humans have long taken our world’s waterbodies for granted.  For hundreds of thousands of years humans have used surface water (oceans, rivers, and lakes) for sustenance, transportation, and recreation.  There have been songs and poems written and pictures painted depicting the beauty of natural water features.  Leonardo daVinci was both an artist and an engineer.  He made some of the first discoveries about the physics of turbulent water flow walking along the banks of streams and observing how the water moved.  People pay large sums of money for the privilege of living along the ocean shores and riverways.  Old west store fronts faced away from streams because that is where the sewage ran.  Now storefronts are turning around and facing the river.  Considering how much esthetic and commercial value we derive from bodies of surface water humans are incredibly negligent when it comes to protecting these resources.  It’s ironic that we dump waste products into the same place we obtain a large portion of our food and drinking water, never thinking about the toxins that waste introduces to our food chain.  It is only recently that we have begun to realize how vulnerable our oceans are.  Perhaps it is because of their scale.  Oceans seem too vast to believe we can damage them, but oceans are not too big to fail!

Recycling cigarette butts

I love what happens when people stop thinking of waste materials as problems and see them as simply untapped resources.  I’ve witnessed this happen with several types of wastes; for example silica fume dust and coal fired power plant fly ash.  I’ve dealt with this in my own composting business recycling organic wastes.  There is a mindset, a prejudice if you will, and it is based mostly on ignorance.  Any material can be dangerous if not handled properly.  You can drown in 6” of water, but you probably don’t think of water as hazardous!  Any material out of place in the environment is pollution.  Broken down cars parked in your driveway is pollution to your neighbors!  And almost any material can become a resource.

Chemists at the University of Nottingham have discovered that cigarette butt-derived carbons have ultra-high surface area and unprecedented hydrogen storage.  They are developing methods that can covert cigarette butts into a valuable resource.  All we need to do is collect them.  Sometimes all it takes is imagination!


I grew up in a home where both my parents smoked, and I admit that as a teenager I stole cigarettes from my parents.  In my youth there was a lot of social prestige from being “cool” enough to smoke and drink beer.  Fortunately much of our attitudes towards smoking cigarettes have passed until recently when vaping has become “cool”.  As I grew older I realized that my body doesn’t tolerate cigarette smoke and this is probably why I never became a heavy smoker.  I quit the occasional cigarette when I became pregnant with my first child in my 20’s.  But having smoked even one or two cigarettes a day I had become addicted and it was hard to quit.  Studies have found that 90% of smokers start as teenagers and none of them believe they will become addicted… yet we all did because nicotine is highly addictive.  We are told nicotine is highly addictive and difficult to stop once addicted yet teenagers still don’t believe this will happen to them.  Today we see vaping on the rise and another generation of young people are becoming addicted to tobacco products, most of who don’t believe it is addictive.

Who is ultimately responsible for cigarette butt pollution, the companies who manufacture and sell the product or the smokers themselves?  Some states are exploring extended producer responsibility (EPR) in order to address some post-consumer waste by passing the responsibility and cost for recycling or disposal to the manufacturer of the product.  But whether we impose regulations on cigarette companies forcing them take responsibility for the pollution their products cause or impose taxes on cigarettes ultimately we must do something about reducing this pollution.  No matter what strategy we use the bottom line is we need to remove cigarette pollution from our stormwater.  Straight forward cost-effective technology like the Gutter Bin® may help us do just that filtering cigarette butts and other debris out of stormwater.  And I can’t help but appreciate the fact that a former oil and gas executive came up with a viable solution!

6 Replies to “Cigarette Butt pollution”

  1. Fascinating article, Jody. I’ve never given much thought to this before now. It’s encouraging to read about people determined to make a positive difference.

    This line really made me shudder:
    “Tobacco companies take the position that proper disposal of these toxic waste products is the responsibility of the consumer.” Naturally they do. Similar to the amoral rationales employed by makers and sellers of guns and ammunition, by those who make and market opioids, by oil companies, by owners of online “platforms”. Ultimately by our entire political/economic system. Tickle or manufacture a need, feed the need with poison, rake in the profits.

    It seems unimaginable at a local, personal level that we could consistently harm our fellow beings and despoil our surroundings in this way without being ostracised or worse. Inconceivable too that we would teach our children this is the way to a good life. But mysteriously this kind of conduct is tolerated and encouraged at scale because it generates $$$, which = success, which is apparently what existence is for. It’s coded into the operating system.

    It seems the profiteers always move faster than our awareness of the blight of the pollution they cause.

    1. When I was working on the Earth Day post I read a lot about pollution and it made me more aware of things I hadn’t been paying attention to such as cigarette butts. Now I see them everywhere! I guess the old saying “ignorance is bliss” applies.
      I agree with you about about producer responsibility, but I also think we need to change the mindset of smokers, who currently think of the ground as an ashtray. The government collects a cigarette tax and I think some of this money should go towards paying to remove this pollution from our storm water.
      The problem with fees, taxes, and tariffs is that the cost get passed onto the consumer. Maybe if we shine a light on this issue we can “shame” both producers and users into being better stewards of the environment.

    1. Interesting idea. It disgusts me to think of beaches becoming that polluted from trash washing up on the shore. I grew up on a lake and I never would have enjoyed going to the beach if it had looked like that.

  2. hi jody – another worthy polemic.

    years ago during an “archelogical” dig in the Staten Island landfill it was found, surprising the researchers was that the only things that persisted after this large scale composting was cigarette filters, feminine products, and so called disposable baby diapers, all containing absorbent artificial cellulose.
    quite the legacy of the age.

    i feel the ocean plastics issue is (and has been) significantly underplayed until recently. the situation here in the pacific has received a lot of press recently, but 40 years ago on a sailing trip from boston to lisbon there was a 1000 mile stretch in the middle where we were never out of sight of floating plastic and styrofoam debris, beach balls, flutter boards, boogie boards, coffee cups etc. so this has been going on for a long time, “beyond the horizon” of most folks.

    the situation at several of the east facing local beaches here is significantly beyond just plastic trash, debris, and fishing gears. these are being removed by hand. however, some of the once coral or black lava sand beaches are completely covered with pieces of plastic smaller than a grain of rice… too small to pick up by hand. that is what the machine, a college research project, was for.

    i am not without hope because these “better living thru chemistry” plastics have only been around since WWII, and production can be slowed and mebbe even stopped (think beer cans and coke bottles). we certainly give new meaning to the word messy, it is indeed ugly, but i believe other things have a much greater chance of bringing immediate harm…

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