A recent Surfrider Foundation cleanup, at Prado beaches, near the city of Marseille on France’s Mediterranean coast was designed to highlight the insidious effects of one particular source of pollution – cigarette butts.
Each year Surfrider Foundation Europe organises hundreds of beach and river cleanups throughout Europe with the aim of safeguarding marine life and preserving the environment.
At one such clean-up, on a single day, Saturday, June 30, at Plages du Prado, Surfrider volunteers collected a staggering 25,000 cigarette ends discarded in the sand. Smokers might find it inconvenient to dispose of cigarette butts safely if they are on the beach but all it takes is either a walk to a waste bin or a pocket ashtray. The pollution that flows from the alternative of stubbing out cigarettes in the sand might come as a wake-up call to smokers.
Cigarette butts are a chronic pollution problem and it isn’t just beach-going smokers that are the
Alpha du Centaure via Wikimedia Commons
Surfing at Prado Beach, Marseille, France
source. Butts discarded on city streets and parks get into drains, then sewers, streams and watercourses and have a high chance of eventually ending up in the ocean. In their report on the Marseille clean-up, Surfrider highlights that one of the unintended consequences of the smoking ban in public spaces, bars and restaurants in most countries across Europe is that smokers, banished to the pavements, trottoirs and trattoria, are more likely to jettison their cigarette butts on the street to be washed into gutters and drains and thence into the ecosystem.
One discarded cigarette butt equals 500 litres of polluted water
The figures from Marseille’ Prado beach are bad enough. The 25,000 butts collected would each pollute 500 litres of water. To put that in perspective, the haul of cigarette detritus collected from the beach at Marseille (and it’s likely to be only a fraction of the total cigarette waste found on one single beach) would be sufficient to pollute around 70 generously proportioned family swimming pools.
Add to that the fact that cigarette butts take around 15 years to break up into minute particles but they do not bio-degrade. Their main constituent is cellulose acetate, a type of plastic, so that even after 15 years, the problem of particulate pollution remains. During that 15 year period before the problem disappears from view (but remains problematic) each cigarette butt, as soon as it becomes damp, starts leaching a potent mixture of toxic chemicals into the environment. The list of harmful pollutants released by cigarette litter is long and includes such delights as arsenic, acetone, ammonia, benzene, cadmium, formaldehyde, lead, and toluene, none of which would be welcome in a swimming-pool near you.
According to an Oceans Conservancy Report entitled ‘Marine Litter: A Global Challenge,’ prepared under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Programme, over half of global marine debris is made up of just two types of rubbish. The most pervasive of these is plastics, but following closely in second place was cigarette related debris. The Oceans Conservancy Report also revealed that roughly 40% of all Mediterranean Sea litter is smoking-related from cigarette butts to associated packaging.
Surfrider Foundation Europe’s Marseille clean-up is likely only to have scratched at the surface of a serious problem but if it makes more people aware of the consequences of their actions then it will have served its purpose. City councils and local authorities are also beginning to address the scourge of cigarette detritus. At least two French authorities have already banned smoking on the beach along France’s Mediterranean coast, one at La Ciotat, in the Bouches-du-Rhone, the other being the city of Nice.
In 2011, a survey carried out during the summer months by Ifop for Dimanche Ouest France found that 75% of French favour 'No Smoking' rule at the seaside, whilst of those polled 42% were said to be "very much in favour" of a ban compared to only 9% "very much against."
Founded in Malibu, California, Surfrider Foundation has now been protecting beaches and rivers worldwide for over 25 years. There are now chapters throughout the world and further information on finding a chapter near you can be found on the Chapters page on the Surfrider Foundation website.