If only butts just went away…

Last week the Economic Matters Committee heard testimony and voted on on HB 405, which proposed prohibiting the sale of cigarettes unless the filters are made of biodegradable material. Delegate Jon Cardin introduced the bill to call attention to the significant pollution problem that littered cigarette butts pose to our neighborhoods and waterways. (In the 2012 International Coastal Cleanup, Maryland volunteers collected 10,243 cigarette butts!)

Making these commonly littered items biodegradable seems like a good idea to help reduce the amount of trash pollution that persists in our environment. Many smokers believe their used butts are biodegradable or don’t substantially contribute to trash pollution. As demonstrated in outreach and behavior change projects conducted by the Surfrider Foundation and Keep America Beautiful, however, many smokers do properly dispose of their used filters once educated on the real impacts. A public discussion of the current degradability of — or lack thereof — these filters could have positive impacts on behavior and litter in our neighborhoods and waterways. This bill could serve to stimulate that outreach.

But are biodegradable filters the answer? Maybe not. Our friends at the Cigarette Butt Pollution Project have some thoughts:

All littered filters are harmful to marine life. Regardless of what the filters are made of, they are designed to reduce toxic chemicals inhaled by smokers. A recent study in California demonstrated that the chemicals that leach out of used filters kill top smelt and flat-headed minnows. The chemicals from just one used filter killed half the fish living in a 1-liter container of water. Whether these filters are made out of cellulose acetate or bioplastics, the risks of toxicity remain.

Smokers might be motivated to litter more. Smokers who currently dispose of their used filters properly could revert to littering their filters if they know the filters are labeled as biodegradable. This predelicition was raised in focus groups conducted by the tobacco industry during other studies of the viability of biodegradable or filterless cigarettes.

“Biodegradable” filters still do not completely go away. Cellulose acetate filters use 12,000 strands of plastic to capture chemicals in tobacco. The material photodegrades but does not biodegrade; the sun breaks it into smaller and smaller pieces that are ingested by marine creatures or absorbed into the soil, but ultimately the strands still exist. Filters labeled as biodegradable are made of bioplastics, plastic-like compounds from plant origins like starch. Unfortunately bioplastics are also not completely biodegradable, particularly in the water where the surrounding temperatures are generally too cold to promote degradation.

One option could be to require filterless cigarettes. Filters may give smokers false assurances of the safety of smoking and delay cessation efforts. By removing the filters entirely, we could reduce the problem of toxic litter as well as the public health threat of smoking overall.

Ultimately the bill failed this year, but we hope the issue continues to come up.

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