A Flick of a Filter Feeds a Fish–Then Poisons It


By 

Charmaine Coimbra 

Making our way down to the beach

When we traversed San Simeon Creek at Hearst State Beach during last year’s International Coastal Clean-up Day, we halted mostly plastic bags, plastic bottle cap tops and food wrappers from becoming plastic food for fish.      

 This year we volunteered for a different beach to learn how trash varies at different locales.  This year’s beach is just below homes, with small county parks and open land with hiking trails on either side of the residential area.  This  beach had limited access  because it is rocky and often underwater during high tide.         

Our 3-person team didn’t retrieve a weighty amount of trash, but we did stop some of the most toxic kind of trash–cigarette filters–from ending inside the bellies of fish, seabirds and marine mammals.            

No surprise. 2009’s International Coastal Clean-up Day brought in 2,189,252 cigarette butts–the trash most found along Earth’s beaches.              

The cigarette filters we picked up were not on the beach, but where cars would park or smokers would sit to enjoy the view.  Sadly, 60-80% of the trash found in the ocean, according to the Ocean Conservancy dropped on land and found its way to sea via waterways, storms or wind.            

There’s a myth that cigarette filters biodegrade.  Not so much. The plastic (acetate) filter can take years to decompose.  They also resemble tasty morsels of food to passing by fish and other marine life.            

  Water fleas, commonly used to estimate acute toxicity, were exposed to different cigarette filter dilutions. “Experiment A (filter only).            

In this “filter only” experiment, 100% of the animals died after 48 hours in the concentrations that were equivalent to the chemicals found in two or more used cigarette filters per liter. In the 25% dilution, equivalent to one cigarette filter per liter of water, 20% of the Daphnia died within 48 hours. The LC50 was, therefore, between one and two used cigarette filters per liter.”   

In other words, tossed cigarette filters become a nasty poison because the filter’s design collects a portion of toxins from the cigarette when smoked.  The author of this study, Kathleen Register, founder and executive director of Clean Virginia Waterways, concluded “Cigarette butts are the most common type of litter on earth. Collected, they weigh in the millions of pounds. The toxic chemicals absorbed by cigarettes’ cellulose acetate filters and found in butts’ remnant tobacco, are quickly leached from the butts by water”  

Because many buildings no longer allow indoor smoking with ashtrays at hand, outdoor smoking has increased, as has the tossing of filters to the ground. It’s an act I watch every time a smoker visits Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Viewing point.  The smoker exits the car, lights up a cigarette while the rest of the passengers wander off to where the seals play.  Finished with the smoke, the smoker tosses the butt in the parking lot.  The next rain storm washes the filters into a 3-foot diameter storm drain that drains directly onto the beach.  Last week, brown and white cigarette filters covered the entire floor of the drain–all sea-bound.      

 In the Home Depot donated buckets we also collected several plastic bottles, a discarded or lost dog toy and one flip-flop at the bottom of another drainage pipe.  These items will not become part of the problem that feeds this Ocean Conservancy statistic:  Every year trash in the ocean kills more than 100,000 marine mammals and more than 1-million seabirds.   

Cigarette Filter Facts:         

  • Cigarette filters were designed to absorb some of the toxins in cigarette smoke and collect solid particles known as tar. They are also intended to keep tobacco from entering the smoker’s mouth.
  • Most cigarette filters contain a core of cellulose acetate and two layers of wrapping that are made of paper and/or rayon.
  • Cellulose acetate fibers in a cigarette filter are thinner than sewing thread and a single filter contains more than 12,000 of these fibers.
  • The inner wrapper on a cigarette filter is designed to either allow air to flow through it from the core for light cigarettes, or to block airflow for regular cigarettes.
  • The outer layer of paper is engineered to not stick to a smoker’s lips and attaches the filter to the tube of tobacco.
  • Chemicals are added to cigarette paper to control the burn rate, and calcium carbonate is added as a whitener, in part to create an appealing ash as the cigarette burns.

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