Associate Editor

In 2017, Ocean Conservancy’s International International Coastal Cleanup initiative collected 2.4 million cigarette butts across beaches worldwide. Photo: Max Pixel

The Inertia

Do you enjoy the occasional cigarette? When finished dragging on said cigarette looking oh, so cool like Matthew McConaughey in “True Detective,” do you flick the butt as if you were in a slow-motion scene in a summer blockbuster? Better still, do you stomp the thing into oblivion beneath your shoe? Well, it turns out more than any other type of litter cigarette butts continue to be the most common on beaches around the world. That’s a problem.

According to a recent report, the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup initiative, which spans 106 countries, collected over 2.4 million cigarette butts at beaches and shorelines across the globe in 2017 alone. They were the single most collected item next to food wrappers (of which the ICC collected 1.7 million).

The problem with cigarette butts is that in addition to being made of cellulose acetate, a type of plastic that could take decades to decompose, the over 165 chemicals found in cigarettes leach into the ocean further harming marine life.

For the first time in over three decades, Ocean Conservancy also reports that the top-ten forms of litter collected through ICC cleanups are all plastics.


“Over the years, we have seen plastics creeping into the top-ten list, displacing items like rope, beverage cans and paper bags,” said Nicholas Mallos, director of Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas program in a press release. “But this is the first year that all ten of the top-ten items collected are made of plastic. Given that plastic production is rising, this could be the start of a long and troubling trend.”

The ICC collects data from every beach cleanup, and in 2017 found the following items to be the top 10 most common forms of litter worldwide:

1. Cigarette butts
2. Food wrappers
3. Plastic bottles
4. Plastic bottle caps
5. Plastic grocery bags
6. Other plastic bags
7. Straws and stirrers
8. Plastic take-out containers
9. Plastic lids
10. Foam take-out containers


Through the ICC’s efforts, over 780,000 volunteers cleaned up nearly 20.5 million pounds of garbage in 2017.

“The ICC raises awareness of ocean health and conservation issues and connects individuals to the problem of marine debris in a deeply personal and tangible way,” said Allison Schutes, associate director of Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas program. “And thanks to the amazing work of our coordinators and volunteers, cleanups have a measurable impact. Every item of debris removed is one less item putting ocean wildlife at risk.”


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