YOUR QUESTIONS –
Littering denotes the dropping or depositing of waste in public places. Littering is a global problem and does not only concern cigarette butts but also chewing gum, packaging and newspapers, and even the illegal disposal of car tires, old refrigerators, and rubble. Waste in nature not only looks unattractive, it also poses considerable dangers to the environment. This must be prevented at all costs.
This is difficult to say, as "littered waste" is not consistently documented by German municipalities. The German Environment Agency (UBA) estimates that about 300,000 tons are generated annually, which corresponds to about 0.6% of typical municipal household waste (2015). About half of the littered waste can be assigned to “eating, drinking, and consuming”, i.e. the remains of take-away packaging and beverage cups but also cigarette butts. At the same time, the UBA admits that litter is not a uniformly managed category and is assigned to different waste categories by various municipalities and waste management companies. For example, litter is often generally counted as municipal waste, and no distinction is made between litter, de-icing salt and green waste. To put this into perspective, a total of about 6.15 million tons of plastic waste is generated in Germany every year.
There are many factors that promote the careless disposal of waste.
- Laziness, haste, or habit – often accompanied by a lack of awareness of the consequences.
- Missing, overfilled, poorly visible, or inadequate disposal facilities.
- Overall, an increasing amount of waste is being generated in public places. People eat and drink more on the go. This leads to more waste resulting from packaging and beverage cups. Because of wide-spread smoking bans, there is more outdoor smoking.
- Already littered areas incite people to litter even more. These places are like initiation points for individuals’ decreasing willingness to continue to properly dispose of their own waste. Here, visible but difficult-to-access areas play an essential role. These can be property lines, waste land, green strips and embankments – often along public transport routes or roads – which are less frequently cleaned.
- Public relations: Many measures can raise awareness of the littering problem, e.g. education through posters, print and social media, target-group specific environmental education, use of nudges, campaigns and flyers.
- More and better disposal options: public waste bins and an adjustment of the placement and emptying of waste bins adjusted to use and situation can mitigate the problem. For cigarette butts, waste bins with integrated ashtrays or collection bins in hot spots may be suitable.
- Product design: Manufacturers of products that are used only once or for a short period of time should rethink the design of their products and packaging for better sustainability.
- Better cooperation between those affected and those responsible: Particularly in “hot spots”, strengthening the bond with the place of residence, neighbourhood campaigns, clean-up campaigns, neighbourhood activities, deployment of “carers” and a better interface management can achieve a lot – and permanently eliminate many “dirty corners”.
- Adjusted cleaning frequency: The cleaning of areas should be consistently adjusted to its use and cleanliness. Especially in high-traffic areas, a tendency to littering can be reversed by more cleanliness while some areas will need cleaning less often.
- More frequent cleaning: Especially in highly frequented areas, a tendency toward littering can be reversed through more cleanliness.
- Making business owners assume a share of the responsibility: Hot spots are often public areas adjacent to places of commercial use, such as dining facilities and venues like clubs or leisure parks, the entrance areas of shopping malls, offices or train stations, public authorities and agencies. Operators can provide suitable disposal facilities relatively easily and keep their outdoor areas clean.
- multi-cycle and deposit systems
- reduction of non-returnable packages
- reduction of single-use bags
- product design
- extended producer responsibility
Measures related to waste logistics
- waste containers
- management of operationally used plastic
- management of large-scale littering items
- amendment: administrative regulations/ municipal statutes/ rights of use
- penalties and fines
- waste consulting
- waste detectives
- environmental education for children and adolescents
- environmental education for adults
Measures to raise awareness
- waste collection campaigns
- area sponsorships
- raising awareness through combined actions
- stickers indication direction to collection bins
- rewards for collection campaigns
When it comes to littering, the most sensible solution is also the simplest: The best thing is for each individual to take responsibility and act in an environmentally conscious way.
- Smokers should properly dispose of cigarette butts in an ashtray or waste bin and have a portable ashtray with them when they are on the go.
- Non-smokers can draw smokers’ attention to the environmental impact of flicking away their cigarette butts.
- Businesses, event organizers and manufacturers can provide more ashtrays for smokers and more litter bins.
The industry is campaigning for more awareness of the problem among consumers.
Raising awareness: At BVTE, we want to find sustainable solutions to the problem of cigarette waste and are therefore committed to raising awareness and changing consumer behaviour in the long term– with campaigns, pocket ashtrays, sponsoring of collection bins and by supporting initiatives and specific actions for a clean environment. LINK
Responsibility: The manufacturers of tobacco product filters stand by their responsibility and will contribute to the public costs incurred by the disposal of their product waste in public places.
Information: From July 2021, cigarette packages with plastic-based cigarette filters will have a label clearly indicating that these products contain plastic. This will remind smokers to dispose of their waste properly.
From 03 July 2021, the packaging of cigarettes and tobacco product filters made from cellulose acetate will have the following marking:
In the future, producers of single-use plastic products – including the cigarette manufacturers of tobacco product filters made from cellulose acetate – will take more responsibility for the waste of their products. In concrete terms, it means that producers contribute to the costs of cleaning public areas. This includes street cleaning, emptying public waste bins and the transport and treatment of this waste. Manufacturers also contribute to the costs of awareness-raising measures. In dialogue with political and other stakeholders, the tobacco industry is working with other manufacturers to meet this extended producer responsibility and to implement these new and complex tasks.
Many questions still need to be clarified with regard to the extent of the industry’s future participation in the costs. To this end, two studies conducted in Germany in 2020 on the questions “How much cigarette waste is generated in public places?” and “How high have the cleaning costs been so far?" come to very different conclusions.13, 14 There are still many open questions concerning the calculation of the costs and the factors that must be included in determining the sharing of costs. The European Commission is working on guidelines to help with this process because the legislature has specified some conditions for future cost-sharing:
- Costs must be based on efficient services, which means that waste collection and cleaning must be carried out at the lowest possible cost.
- Costs must be determined among all stakeholders, which means that manufacturers and those responsible for municipal waste disposal are also involved in this process.
- Costs must be determined transparently, which means that valid and accessible data must be available for calculations to make these calculations traceable.
- The costs must be reasonable, which means that, depending on the proportion, they are dynamically adjusted together with the implemented measures and successes.
A mere redistribution of cleaning costs does not solve the problem.
COMPARISON OF STUDIES
The company pbo Ingenieurgesellschaft has determined the quantities of cigarette waste in the different waste systems. Over half of the cigarettes consumed in Germany are properly disposed of in household waste. In public waste, cigarette butts account by weight for an average of 0.56% of the total amount. Another study commissioned by the German Association of Local Utilities (VKU) identifies a slightly higher proportion of cigarette butts of about 1.3% in public waste.
Both studies provide an important data basis for future cost calculations. While the results are still relatively close in terms of the determined waste volumes, the situation looks different when it comes to costs. According to the pbo study, even with very high estimates for city cleaning costs of € 38.80 per capita per annum, a maximum share of € 24 million per year can be calculated for the manufacturers of tobacco products. By contrast, the VKU expects a disproportionately high annual cost sharing of € 225 million. These very different results show that in future assessments of costs, particular importance must be attached to a transparent process with plausible contributions of all parties involved.
AND EVERYTHING YOU NEED
TO KNOW ABOUT THEM
The base material of most tobacco product filters is cellulose acetate, a bio-based plastic made from the renewable raw material cellulose. Cellulose is the basic building component of all plants, i.e. all plant materials such as wood or grass consist primarily of cellulose. Cellulose is therefore the most common biomolecule in the world. Cellulose acetate is produced by modifying the natural raw material cellulose by adding acetate (acetic acid) groups.
The purpose of filters is to filtrate tobacco smoke and retain some of the substances contained in tobacco smoke. Filters are needed to comply with the legally required maximum values of tar, nicotine and carbon monoxide in tobacco smoke, and they prevent tobacco crumbs from entering the mouth. Most smokers prefer cigarettes with filters, both as manufactured cigarettes and roll-your-own.
The production of cigarettes with filters began in the 1950s. Today, manufactured cigarettes are almost exclusively demanded as filter cigarettes. Since the 1970s, cellulose acetate has established itself worldwide as a base material for cigarette filters, since it reduces smoke constituents efficiently and has only a slight impact on taste.
Legislators have reacted to the development of filters and, since 1993, have set maximum values for various smoke constituents in cigarettes in Germany and Europe. These have been gradually lowered over the past few years. While standard commercial cigarettes in the 1950s still had condensate values of about 30 mg per cigarette, a maximum of 10 mg per cigarette is permitted today. Without filters these prescribed maximum values could not be met. Until 2016, cellulose acetate was the only production-relevant base material approved for the production of cigarette filters in Germany.
Cigarette waste contains residues of tobacco smoke. These substances can be washed out by rain and enter the soil as well as ground and surface water. The ingredients can potentially harm living organisms there. In laboratory experiments, for example, freshwater and saltwater fish reacted with stress to water in which cigarette residues had been soaked. Although these results relate to closed systems in containers with small volumes and no exchange, they demonstrate the potential effect of tobacco smoke on marine organisms.
Yes. Biodegradable means that microorganisms can dissolve the material into its basic components such as carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and other elements.
While an apple degrades within weeks, a banana peel takes about two years and a disposable diaper 450 years. Cigarette filters are biodegradable – but unfortunately not very quickly. Under natural environmental conditions, degradation takes 7-15 years. The time-delaying factor here is the separation of the acetic acid (acetate) from the basic cellulose structure. Once these groups are split off, the material is degraded like natural cellulose. Initially, the degradation of cellulose acetate is also complicated by the way it is processed: The material in the filter is compressed, wrapped in paper, and glued to the tobacco rod. How long it then takes in each case depends on the respective conditions (light, oxygen, moisture, pH value).
There is no evidence that cigarette waste ends up as microplastic. Microplastics are non-degradable plastic particles smaller than 5 μm. In most cases, these are remnants of plastic products that remain in the environment due to mechanical degradation – in fact, conventional plastic from petroleum products does not undergo material degradation but only mechanical degradation. One of the biggest sources of microplastics in the environment is tire wear: In Germany, this alone generates 60,000 - 111,000 metric tons of microplastics each year. Since cellulose acetate, on the other hand, can be degraded materially, filters cannot degrade into microplastic particles at all, unlike plastic from petroleum products, which take an average of many hundreds of years to decompose in a natural environment.
CONSTRUCTION OF A CIGARETTE
So far there has been no satisfactory alternative to cellulose acetate although tobacco companies have been researching cigarette filters that degrade more quickly for many years. A new filter must have a better environmental footprint than cellulose acetate while having comparable filter properties. In addition, a new material must guarantee compliance with the legally required maximum levels in tobacco smoke and must be resistant to heat and moisture.
There is a new type of cellulose acetate that has been certified as biodegradable. Manufacturers in Germany have further developed cellulose acetate as the base material for filters. This new type of patented cellulose acetate biodegrades faster because the first step, the separation of the acetate (acetic acid) group, is much easier and sunlight/UV light facilitates this process. This material has already been tested and certified as “biodegradable” for conditions in soil, industrial compost, water, and sea. It is already used as a filter material in products on the German market. Nevertheless, the base material is only a first step. The design of the filter and the other filter components, such as wrapping papers and glues, must also undergo further technical development for a filter that degrades more quickly. But even then, the maxim still holds: Cigarette butts must not be thrown away carelessly – if only for the tobacco smoke substances they contain.
In addition, ecological innovations and corresponding consumer information in the tobacco sector are not exactly facilitated by the fact that manufacturers in Germany have been prohibited from referring to ecological properties on packages or in advertising since 2016.
There are already filters made of paper for roll-your-own cigarettes. So far, paper hasn’t been particularly well suited for the production of manufactured cigarettes. Until May 2016, its use as a base material for the production of cigarette filters was even prohibited by law. Paper cannot be processed well enough by machines and has different filter properties than cellulose acetate: Paper filters give cigarettes a different taste, which in most cases – as tests have shown – does not meet the customer’s taste. At present, cellulose acetate is the best available option. Due to its good filtration efficiency, it guarantees compliance with the legally prescribed maximum levels in tobacco smoke, withstands changes in humidity, is heat-resistant and very durable. However, for years companies have been working on developing filters that are more ecologically compatible.
Better degradable filters would indeed partially solve the problem of cigarette waste in the environment in that visible waste would disappear more quickly. However, the fact that cigarette butts – regardless of what material they are made of – always contain residues of tobacco smoke and thus substances that are harmful to one’s health would remain unsolved. After all, retaining these substances is precisely the task of a filter. If cigarette butts are disposed of improperly, they can get into the environment. It should also be noted: The introduction of more easily degradable filters can also have a counterproductive effect. It may entice consumers to throw their cigarette waste into the environment more often than they do now – it is degradable after all. This could have the opposite effect of what we all want. The only sustainable solution is and will be: the proper disposal of cigarette waste by smokers themselves.
AND THE QUESTION OF WASTE
In Germany, cigarette waste is classified either as mixed municipal waste (waste code 20 03 01) or as street sweepings (waste code 20 03 03). Both types of waste are classified as non-hazardous. The term special waste is not used in recycling law; rather, it distinguishes between non-hazardous and hazardous waste. Despite the tobacco smoke residues, cigarette butts do not contain large quantities of hazardous substances and are therefore not classified as a hazardous component of waste.
In Germany, cigarette butts, when properly disposed of, are usually thermally recycled and thus do not pose a burden to humans or the environment. They are disposed of together with other mixed municipal waste in approved residual waste treatment plants or incinerated to generate energy. Waste incineration plants usually reach temperatures of 800-1000°C. These temperatures are sufficient to effectively destroy the tobacco smoke substances in cigarette waste.
Cigarette butts that are disposed of properly do not pose a problem either in terms of quantity or disposal. Only when they end up in the environment do they pose a potential danger and burden to people and the environment due to their pollutant load and slow decomposition.
From a mere technical point of view, it is possible to recycle cigarette butts. So far, however, this has neither ecologically nor economically made sense. There are various experimental approaches to recycling cigarette waste: as sound-insulating filler, as an insecticide against mosquito larvae in the tropics, to recycle cellulose or as an additive in clay bricks for building houses, to name just a few examples. Organizations have also emerged that advocate the recycling of cigarette waste (e.g. https://tobacycle.de/).
Basically, when cigarette butts are recycled, the filter material is first separated from the paper, tobacco and ash on a shaking grate. About half of the cigarette butts consist of the paper-tobacco-ash mixture, which is composted. The organic material obtained can only be admixed and used to a limited extent as fertilizer due to the – albeit small – quantities of pollutants it contains.
The other half is the filter material. The shredded cellulose acetate fibres are mixed with other plastic (often in a 1:9 ratio with polypropylene) and melted.
A granulate is obtained in which the cellulose acetate fibres are covered by the polypropylene melt. Due to the possible residual content of tobacco smoke substances, the material obtained can only be used for products that are not brought into contact with food, such as plastic pallets or waste collection containers.
Due to the limited usability and quality of the recycled material, it is more accurate to speak of down-cycling. Given its energy usage and the additionally necessary collection and transport systems, the process scores relatively poorly in ecological and economic terms.
Recycling with separate collection and return of waste only becomes economically reasonable and sustainable with a sufficiently large amount of a starting material. This must be questioned when having a look at a maximum quantity of about 40,000 tons of cellulose acetate in Germany resulting from the consumption of cigarettes in relation to the approximately 6.15 million tons of plastic waste in Germany and the constantly decreasing consumption of cigarettes.
The BVTE currently considers recycling of cigarette butts neither useful nor expedient. Nevertheless, we welcome the activities of organizations such as Tobacycle and support their engagement since it creates more awareness of the problem.
The goal of recycling, after all, is to return raw material to the materials cycle, but the problem with carelessly discarded cigarette butts is not the loss of raw materials. It could make sense to set up separate collection containers, but separately collected cigarette waste should subsequently also be processed thermally with residual waste.
There are projects that propose setting up a deposit system so that fewer cigarette butts end up in the environment (e.g. https://aufheber.org/). The BVTE does not consider a deposit system for cigarette butts to be appropriate, economical and ecologically sound. A close look at the model of a deposit system quickly reveals the enormous infrastructure and logistics such a system would require. In Germany, a large number of potential collection points for cigarette butts exist (tobacco retailers, petrol stations, supermarkets). These, however, would have to provide storage space that meets the hygienic requirements of food retailing. Sufficient collection containers would have to be developed and produced for about 12 million smokers in Germany (not counting visitors and losses or stockpiles, etc.). These containers would have to be heat-resistant, leak- and odour-proof, and their production would consume valuable resources. At the collection points, identification of the deposit (with closed collection containers) would have to ensure that a certain number of cigarette butts are in the container.
The retailers would have to make advance investments, which would then have to be administered and tracked. Such a system could hardly be set up at a national level because in Germany not only those cigarettes are consumed that were bought in the country: Through tourists and border purchases, a considerable proportion of cigarettes crosses borders.
The idea of the deposit system is also linked to a subsequent recycling process of the deposit. (see "Can cigarette butts be recycled?") Link Since cigarette filters cannot be recycled appropriately in macroeconomic terms at the moment, a deposit system as a measure does not make sense. The objection that setting up a deposit system would not be done to recover valuable raw material but to stop consumers from littering the environment with their cigarette butts results in an expensive detour. The best way to reduce the amount of cigarette waste is to promote a change in consumer behaviour and encourage proper disposal.
At home and on private or commercial premises, cigarette butts are to be disposed of with the so-called household or residual waste, in public places (outside, on the street) in the provided waste bins or ashtrays. If there is no suitable disposal option nearby when away from home, portable pocket ashtrays are the best interim solution.
Existing studies answer this question differently. Most results are based on surveys and estimates, which often look at the numbers of pieces. This, of course, results in higher figures than is actually represented by the weight of cigarette waste. The WHO assumes that between one to two thirds of all cigarettes consumed worldwide end up in the environment. In Berlin, the Technical University collected an average of 2.7 cigarette filters per m². Cigarette butts were collected over 3 months in sample areas of 3 m² in different parts of the city centre (at underground entrances but also in residential areas). The averaged number of 2.7 was then extrapolated to the total area of the city and the year, resulting in the purely mathematical conclusion that 2.4 billion cigarette filters end up on Berlin’s streets every year.
Even if we assume that extrapolations often produce exaggerated numbers, one thing is clear: Numerically, the problem is large; too many cigarette butts end up in the environment.
A large proportion of all cigarettes or tobacco products are consumed at home, on private or commercial premises, and then disposed of properly in ashtrays and in residual waste. In Germany, an estimated 60% of all consumed cigarettes are disposed of via household waste, and about 0.1% of household waste is cigarette waste. Much of the waste disposed of via household waste is thermally recycled in waste incineration plants.
- Approximately 40% of all tobacco products in Germany are consumed and disposed of in public places.
- A part of it is consumed in areas where waste is not disposed of by public disposal companies but by private companies (e.g., businesses, airports or train stations). No data is available on these waste volumes.
- Some consumers dispose of their cigarette waste in public waste containers. This waste does not pose a problem, neither in terms of quantity nor disposal. The percentage by weight of cigarette butts in public waste bins is 0.5% - 1.9%.
- The problem is the littered share of cigarette waste: the proportion of tobacco products consumed in public places and then carelessly discarded on the pavement, street, or in nature.
- Most of these discarded cigarette butts are regularly picked up by machines as street sweepings or retained in the sieves of gullies. Of the 8.95 kg of street sweepings generated annually per inhabitant in the city of Trier, cigarette butts account for 0.52% by weight. In the city centre, this proportion is much higher with 1.71% than in residential areas, where the average percentage is 0.18%. Another study comes to a slightly higher weight percentage of 1.2% of cigarette butts in street sweepings. In the gullies, cigarette butts account for about 1% of retained waste.
- The part of littered cigarette butts that is not regularly picked up by mechanical sweepers is not a uniformly managed category in waste management and is allocated differently across various municipalities and waste disposal companies. As a result, there are few comparable data on this aspect. In surveys conducted in Germany, cigarette butts account for 0.54% - 2.2% of littered waste by weight. 13, 14
The filter of a cigarette weighs about 0.2 g. Cigarette butts can weigh more if the cigarettes were only partially smoked and the filters still have residues of tobacco and paper or if they came into contact with dirt or moisture. The waste of one cigarette weighs 0.366-0.524 g in the different types of waste.
In Germany, 73.8 bn taxed cigarettes with filters were sold in 2020. That is 888 cigarettes per capita per annum. Assuming an average weight of cigarette waste of 0.445 g, that would amount to 32,841 tons. When adding the share of cigarettes not taxed in Germany, the maximum value is 88.6 bn cigarettes, or about 40,313 tons. Assuming that about 40% of all cigarettes are consumed in public places, this could theoretically result in 16,125 tons of cigarette waste.
To put this into perspective, a total of about 6.15 million tons of plastic waste is generated in Germany every year.