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Butt of the problem: Hazardous dropped cigarettes could be recycled

Cigarettes are the number one source of litter in Canada - but what can we do about it? Sean Prockter from Jasper Hikes & Tours has some suggestions. | S.
A dropped cigarette butt in Jasper. Sean Prockter photo.
Cigarettes are the number one source of litter in Canada - but what can we do about it? Sean Prockter from Jasper Hikes & Tours has some suggestions.  | S.Prockter photo

Sean Prockter - Special to the Fitzhugh

Did you know that cigarette butts are considered litter? 

OK, perhaps you knew that one, but did you also know that you can recycle them here in Canada? 

It’s true, and given that cigarettes are toxic, non-biodegradable and made of plastic means tossing them on the sidewalk does a significant amount of harm to our environment. 

So, if you are a smoker, know someone who smokes, or just simply cares about our environment, please read on to find out how hazardous a single cigarette butt can be.

Cigarettes are the number one source of litter in Canada and has been for over 20 years, according to the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup. In fact, there were more than 500,000 butts collected in 2018 alone. 

Why? Well, it’s still largely considered a socially acceptable action, which it shouldn’t be. A tossed cigarette butt is an act of littering.

How can one cigarette butt be a problem? 

Well, other than the cumulative effects of multiple people thinking that way about a tossed cigarette, it’s also toxic to the environment. 

A variety of chemicals are added to cigarettes to make them more appealing, control the burn rate, and promote addiction. 

Often the cigarette is not entirely smoked and the nicotine that still remains is extremely poisonous to all organisms. 

Then there’s the cigarette filter, which is designed to do exactly what its name suggests, filter and absorb the toxins in cigarette smoke and collect solid particles known as tar. Most cigarette filters have an inner core composed of cellulose acetate, a form of plastic. 

Here in Jasper, a cigarette butt may take five to ten years to break apart; however, that does not mean that it biodegrades. It simply breaks apart into tiny pieces. 

The toxins then spread into our waterways, poisoning our fish and other aquatic species while the acetate turns into microplastics. 

Ocean Wise, a conservation organization based in British Columbia, has done extensive research on microplastics in our marine environment and the findings are not good. 

The fish off our coasts are consuming these microplastics at an alarming rate, causing a multitude of health problems. 

Microplastics also act as binding agents to chemical pollutants, and guess what happens to those chemicals if the fish are harvested? They wind up on our plates and in our restaurants as a wicked full circle.

What can we do about this? 

Cigarette butts are dropped all over Jasper National Park. | S.Prockter photo

First of all, don’t litter. 

However, there is something else we can do here in Jasper that not only prevents the littering of cigarette butts, but can also support our community at the same time.

It’s called TerraCycle and to date, they have recycled nearly 150 million cigarette butts right here in Canada.

Basically, an individual, organization or municipality can sign up with the company, print off a free shipping label and once they’ve collected enough butts, ship them off to Mississauga where the box is weighed. 

One pound is worth $1 starting at three pounds, and all the funds go towards a charity of your choice. 

The butts are zapped with gamma rays to remove the toxicity, processed into tiny plastic balls and then morphed into industrial plastics used for railway ties and plastic pallets. 

Businesses and municipalities all across Canada have been erecting these metal receptacles ($100) designed to collect cigarettes in downtown areas for this cause. 

With many of our community groups struggling due to funding cuts, this could be an amazing way to give back to the town in several positive ways.

For some reason, our society continues to see the tossing of cigarette butts as socially acceptable. 

We are trying to break that social barrier through education. It’s considered pollution and the most common form of littering in this country. 

The indigenous people of Canada have long said that the health of our land is the health of our people. They are absolutely right. 

Don’t be part of the problem; be part of the solution, one cigarette butt at a time.

Sean Prockter is owner and operator of Jasper Hikes & Tours.

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