It’s impossible not to be if you work in the ocean trash world. Every year International Coastal Cleanup volunteers pickup more cigarette butts off our beaches than any other item by an order of magnitude. Since the Cleanup’s inception in 1986, cigarette butts have been the number one item on Ocean Conservancy’s annual Top Ten list, which highlights the most persistent items of ocean trash found globally. And while 2012 Cleanup data are still being compiled, I suspect cigarette butts will retain their title for another year.
What’s the big deal you might ask? Well inside each of those butts is a filter—unfiltered cigarettes excluded—made of cellulose acetate, a slow-degrading plastic. These plastic fibers are packed tightly together to create a filter, which often resembles cotton in appearance. So even though Cleanup volunteers have kept more than 55 million cigarette butts off beaches and out of the ocean over the years, the ultimate fate of these tiny plastics is still the landfill because there’s simply no value in a butt…or is there?