Banning the Butts: A Look at the World’s Largest Source of Ocean Pollution

by: Izabella White

Recently, there has been a movement by many known businesses and establishments to eliminate plastic straw usage. This is due to the fact that plastic consumption and plastic pollution are part of a global crisis.[i] It is estimated that around “18 billion pounds of plastic waste enters the world’s ocean from coastal regions.”[ii] Researchers also estimate that “more than 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic has been produced since the early 1950’s.”[iii] Additionally, it is estimated that about 60% of that plastic has eventually ended up in either a landfill or the environment.[iv] Due to this enormous amount of plastic making its way into the oceans, marine creatures are suffering, and it will not be long until the effects seen in oceanic ecosystems will start to affect – if they have not already – our terrestrial ecosystems. New research has shown that there are potential threats regarding human health and food security.[v]

This trend to eliminate plastic straws was not the first attempt to reduce plastic consumption. We have seen the push towards eliminating plastic bags, plastic utensils, and more recently, plastic straws.[vi] Earlier this year, Starbucks announced its plans to eliminate plastic straw usage.[vii] Reports stated that by the year 2020, all 28,000 Starbucks stores would be eliminating plastic straws.[viii]  To serve as another example, currently trending is companies monetization of environmental sustainability by producing stylish versions of reusable straws to reduce the usage of plastic ones. Social media stars have been working with companies like UltimateStraw which sell collapsible reusable straws. As a selling point, the company’s website states that “one UltimateStraw could replace over 500 single-use plastic straws from polluting the environment every year.”[ix] This is a smart tactic. Social media influencers reach hundreds of thousands if not millions of people through their social media in one single post. So, while in many ways people may say that one person cannot change the world, with today’s technology, one person may reach a million or more who can then, in turn, make a change in this pollution crisis.

It seems, however, that plastic straws may not be the biggest issue after all, even though they seem to be getting all the attention. Recent studies have shown that cigarette butts are actually the main form of ocean pollution around the world.[x] Data collected about ocean clean-ups in 2016 showed that “cigarette butts remained the top collected item of litter in California, in the United States, and internationally.”[xi] The majority of cigarette butts are disposed of in an irresponsible manner. According to the WHO, “tossing a cigarette butt on the ground has become one of the most accepted forms of littering globally and borders on a social norm for many smokers.”[xii] Harsh and toxic chemicals from these cigarette butts, such as nicotine, arsenic, heavy metals, and known human carcinogens, then end up “on our streets, in our drains, and in our water.”[xiii] These toxins in turn also affect aquatic organisms.

It is important to note that the majority of filters in cigarettes are made of tiny plastic particles “that take decades or more to decompose.”[xiv]Therefore, although the form the pollutant comes in may be different, plastic is still the underlying culprit. In February of 2018, Mark Stone, a California politician, introduced legislation, Assembly Bill 2308, prohibiting cigarette butts containing these plastic filters as they offer no type of health benefit to smokers.[xv] The tobacco industry misled the public into believing that these filters were a safer alternative to non-filtered cigarettes, however, according to research, these filters may have actually contributed to the rise of lung adenocarcinomas (a form of lung cancer).[xvi]

Banning almost never seems like the best option. This is because if people are continuously told not to do something, the more they want to do it.[xvii] When cities and states started talking about outright banning the usage of plastic bags, they were met with many critiques and public disdain. But, while the ban does have its advantages, it appears as if these plastic bag bans were a better solution than many of the other alternatives that had been proposed.[xviii]

The truth is that regardless of the form it comes in, be it plastic straws or even cigarette butts, plastic is still having a great impact on our global environment, and if measures are not taken to alleviate the impact of plastic in the environment, it is not only the ocean that is going to suffer.

[i] Brian C. Howard, Sarah Gibbens, & Elaina Zachos, A Running List of Action on Plastic Pollution, National Geographic (Sept. 21, 2018), [].

[ii] Id.

[iii] This World Environment Day, It’s Time for a Change, UN Environment, [].

[iv] Id.

[v] Howard et al, supra note i.

[vi] James Rainey, Plastic Straw Ban? Cigarette Butts are the Single Greatest Source of Ocean Trash, NBC News (Aug. 27, 2018), [].

[vii] Trevor Nace, Starbucks to Ditch Plastic Straws – Will it Actually Help the Environment?, Forbes (Jul. 10, 2018), [].

[viii] Id.

[ix] UltimateStraw Save the Planet Collapsible Reusable Straws, Ultimate Straw, [].

[x] Rainey, supra note vi.

[xi] Arianna Smith, Stone Reintroduces Cigarette Butt Ban, Assembly Member Mark Stone District 29 (Feb. 13, 2018) [].

[xii] Katie Dangerfield, Cigarette Butts are Polluting the Ocean More Than Plastic Straws – So Why Not Ban These, Global News (Sept. 3, 2018), []

[xiii] Id.

[xiv] Id.

[xv] Smith, supra note xi.

[xvi] Id.

[xvii] Charles S. Jacobs, Don’t Read This – The Big Mistake Managers Make, Psychology Today (May 29, 2013), []

[xviii] Jessica Coulter, Note: A Sea Change to Change the Sea: Stopping the Spread of the Pacific Garbage Patch with Small-Scale Environmental Legislation, 51 Wm. & Mary L. Rev. 1959, 1989 (2010).