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Up in smoke: Cigarette litter and the environment

Saturday - 7/23/2011, 8:25am  ET

WASHINGTON - People seem to flick cigarettes out of their car windows, onto sidewalks and into the grass without a thought. And it turns out, cigarettes are the most littered item in the world. So what happens to all these cigarette butts? And what harm to they do? WTOP has the answers.

How many cigarette butts are littered each year?

About 15 billion cigarettes are smoked everyday worldwide. This results in over a trillion littered cigarette butts a year, which is literally tons of trash. It's estimated the filters add up to 1.7 billion pounds of litter a year.

What kind of an impact does this have have the environment?

A big impact. They may look like paper, but most cigarette filters are made of a type of plastic called cellulose acetate. According to Cigarettelitter.org, it can take up to twelve years for them to decompose and that's when the real environmental damage starts.

Studies by Clean Virginia Waterways, a Virginia nonprofit that works to protect area waterways, show that rainwater causes toxic chemicals to leech out of cigarettes and into groundwater. This can be deadly to creatures like flies and microbes that play small, but important roles in the ecosystem. Filters can also be accidentally eaten by animals or small children who find them.

What's the biggest problem with discarded cigarettes?

Accidental fire, says Pete Piringer, spokesman for the Washington D.C. Fire and EMS services.

"Smoking, and improperly disposed-of smoking materials, is one of the leading causes of fires in the United States," he says.

According to the National Fire Protection Agency, more than 1,000 people are killed each year in fires started by cigarettes. The fires are also responsible for about $400 million a year in property damage.

What can you do to prevent cigarette-related fires?

Piringer says the most important thing is managing your behavior. Cigarettes can smolder at high temperatures for up to three hours, so it's important to make sure the butt is cool before you toss it anywhere. Another way? Fireproof cigarettes.

"These cigarettes have banded paper that slow the burn of a cigarette that isn't being used," says Piringer, "Therefore it's less likely to catch things on fire."

The most important way to reduce all the problems from cigarette butts? Simply, don't litter them.

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(Copyright 2011 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)