There is an urgent need to reduce the presence of single-use plastic in our environment — and it is encouraging to see governments beginning to announce concrete actions, such as bottle return schemes or restrictions on the production of particular items.
There are really two kinds of single-use plastics. There are those with a very clear and substantial human benefit, which cannot be easily replicated — an obvious example would be the disposable syringes or gloves used in hospitals. There are no calls to ban or restrict these, due to the huge human costs that would be incurred, although the development of biodegradable alternatives needs to be pursued.
Then there are the non-essential consumer items, those pieces of single-use plastic which centre on ease, preference or convenience and which could be replaced by other products or behaviour change. These include plastic straws, coffee cups and cotton bud stems, and are rightly the focus of the regulations and restrictions now being developed.
Plastic cigarette butts belong in this latter group of optional, replaceable consumer items.
Cigarette filters are one of the major components of single-use plastic waste. They cause considerable environmental harm — while they do degrade more quickly than some other plastic items, in doing so they break into progressively smaller pieces of plastic, all the time releasing toxins into the environment.
Cigarette filters do not bring health benefits, although two thirds of smokers think that they do. What filters do achieve is to make smoking more palatable by cooling the smoke and removing larger, more irritable particles. In fact, by giving the impressed of reduced harm, and by making smoking easier for young people to start, the actual effect of filters is likely to increase the overall smoking rate and hence create a negative health impact.
As with straws, cups and cotton buds, non-plastic alternatives do exist, but are rarely used, presumably because there has been no driver on the industry or the consumer to use anything other than the cheapest, most convenient option. This is why regulation is needed, but to date cigarette filters have been marginal to the debate — although there is growing media awareness. The European Union is now proposing some action, but in this case centred on clearing-up litter rather than on product restrictions.
Interestingly the tobacco industry suggests that filters should be not be included in current considerations because they “are not made of a petrochemical plastic”. It seems to me that the question is not over where a product comes from, but where it ends up and what harm it causes there.
With cigarette butts clearly identified as one of the key components of single-use plastic waste, it is hard to see how a credible action plan to reduce single-use plastic waste could possibly exclude them.