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Environment

This Is the Single Greatest Source of Ocean Trash (Hint: It's Not Plastic Straws)


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Plastic pollution is one of the biggest threats to the ocean and marine life, and plastic is expected to outnumber fish in the ocean by 2050. Join us in taking action on this issue here

The problem with plastic drinking straws is finally catching on, but the list of everyday materials clogging the ocean and hurting fish goes on and on. 

According to a group of environmentalists, tiny cigarette butts are the biggest threat of them all, and now they want them banned, NBC News reported Monday. While cigarette butts are the No. 1 man-made contaminant in the world’s oceans, they happen to be the least regulated. 

Most cigarettes — 5.6 trillion manufactured each year across the globe — use filters made of cellulose acetate, a type of plastic that can take up to a decade to decompose. The Cigarette Butt Pollution Project reported that two-thirds of those filters aren’t thrown out responsibly. 

Take Action:Pledge to Take 3 for the Sea

“It seems like a no-brainer to me that we can’t continue to allow this,” Thomas Novotny, a professor of public health at San Diego State University, told NBC News

If only it were that simple. 

Over the course of 32 years, the Ocean Conservancy collected 60 million cigarette butts, marking them the single most piece of trash collected during their annual beach cleanups. Most filters aren’t getting discarded on the beach — they find their way to the ocean from storm drains and other bodies of water across the world. The butts, often made of synthetic fibers and chemicals, disintegrate into microplastics. Eventually, wildlife such as seabirds and sea turtles ingest them. 

The Surfrider Foundation, an environmental nonprofit, hopes to put pressure on health organizations to recognize butts pose harm to humans as well — some research has linked them to cancer.

Read more:Where does the plastic in your trash go?

Anti-smoking organizations like the Truth Initiative are pivoting campaigns to educate consumers. When it comes to banning filters, San Francisco has made the most headway in the US by tacking on a fee of 60 cents per pack, meant to raise enough money to cover the cost of cleaning up their waste. Other cities like New York aren’t having much luck passing legislation on the issue. A French amusement park even trained crows to pick up cigarettes. 

Read More: Adidas Sold 1 Million Shoes Made of Ocean Plastic Last Year

Then there are companies like Greenbutts, making eco-friendly butt alternatives out of organic materials, but they can’t make much progress without government support. Tobacco companies tried defending cigarette butts’ bad reputation by swapping in biodegradable filters, launching anti-litter campaigns, and pushing portable ashtrays. Unfortunately, market research found smokers can’t kick the habit of flicking their butts. 

The worst part? Filters were introduced as a marketing tool intended to make consumers feel protected against the harmful impacts of tobacco. Research found they don’t make a difference.  

Eight million metric tons of plastic pollute the world’s oceans each year. To visualize, Earth Day Network says that’s enough trash to cover every foot of coastline around the world with five full trash bags of plastic compounding every year.