Think before you flick — cigarette butts aren't biodegradable

The snow has melted to reveal months of discarded pizza crusts, dog poop and cigarette butts. But unlike the first two things, cigarette filters aren’t biodegradable, and now the city has launched a campaign to get smokers to stop flicking them away.

Filters are one of the most littered items in the world and they're made of microfibers

Lisa Erdle stands beside a microscope focused on a cigarette butt. The screen on the left shows the thousands of microfibres that make up a single cigarette filter. (Lisa Erdle )

The snow has melted to reveal months of discarded pizza crusts, dog poop and cigarette butts. But unlike the first two things, cigarette filters aren't biodegradable, and now the city has launched a campaign to get smokers to stop flicking them away. 

Contrary to popular belief, those white sponge-like butts aren't made from cotton or paper — instead they're a synthetic microfibre that takes years to break down and experts say those butts are one of the most littered items in the world. 

"Walking along Toronto's waterfront, I picked up dozens of cigarette butts in 60 seconds," said Lisa Erdle, who studies how microplastics and microfibres affect aquatic life at the University of Toronto. 

'We're eating and drinking our litter'

Every single fish Erdle has examined from the Great Lakes has had a piece of microfibre or microplastic in its system.

"It's probably getting into us and we don't know what the effects are to humans. But we're literally eating and drinking our litter," said Erdle.

Cigarette filters line King Street in downtown Toronto. (Natalie Nanowski/CBC)

This week, the City of Toronto began targeting the small cigarette butt as a "big problem."

Flicked cigarettes don't disappear

Toronto's new anti-litter campaign targets cigarette butts. The filters make up most of the city's litter. (City of Toronto)

"There's this thought out there that people flick a cigarette butt on the ground and it's mysteriously going to disappear. It doesn't happen," said Robert Orpin, director of collections and litter operations for the City of Toronto.

Orpin says the butts end up in catch basins and then in Lake Ontario. The campaign's aim is to remind people to dispose of the filters properly.

"If you're smoking, it's your responsibility after you finish to put [the cigarette] in the garbage. We have 9,500 street receptacles out there," said Orpin.

Tobacco companies introduced filters as a way of making cigarettes "healthier."

Most filters are made from cellulose acetate, a type of plastic that either comes from tree fibre, nylon or polyester and is then coated to become durable. The fibres are supposed to absorb some of the chemicals in the tobacco.

Filters meant to absorb toxins 

"Those filters are made up of hundreds or thousands of  tiny microfibres. And when a cigarette butt breaks down it's just breaking apart into these individual fibres and these might get ingested by wildlife and they can carry toxic chemicals," said Erdle.

A close look at the inside the intestinal tract of a fish from one of the Great Lakes. The black line in the centre is a microfibre. (Keenan Munno)

The European Union recently voted to ban many single use plastics by 2021. Part of the deal includes having tobacco companies pay for some of the cost of public butt collection.   

Other parts of the world, like California, are pushing for a ban on the sale of cigarette that contain filters.

Toronto Mayor John Tory says the city isn't going after big tobacco companies, and although smokers can get fined for littering, that's not the most cost-effective solution either, since it's tough for bylaw officers to catch a cigarette flick.

"I think the truth is that we just have to educate people to stop this bad behaviour," said Tory.


Natalie Nanowski

Reporter, CBC Toronto

Natalie is a storyteller who spent the last few years in Montreal covering everything from politics to corruption and student protests. Now that she’s back in her hometown of Toronto, she is eagerly rediscovering what makes this city tick, and has a personal interest in real estate and environmental journalism. When she’s not reporting you can find her at a yoga studio or exploring Queen St. Contact Natalie:


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