Thursday, November 4, 2010

Ashes to Ashes, Part II

A month ago, I wrote about a little test I'd been doing with cigarette butts. Do they really take ages to break down in waterways?

As a quick recap, on August 28 I took one of the thousands of cigarettes I've picked up from the beach and plopped it into a 5-gallon bucket of freshwater.
Day 1 - August 28, 2010
This simulates a cigarette butt falling from a gutter into a local storm drain.

From the storm drain, a cigarette butt will travel through a network of pipes until it dumps into a stream or river. And except in a few cities, there is nothing -- nothing -- to stop that cigarette (or any gutter trash) from going straight into the great waterways of the world.

So for the first month, I simulated the cigarette floating through storm drains. I put sand and a rock in the bucket to simulate the scouring effect of pipes & debris. Every day I took a stick and swirled it in the water 25 times to agitate it. By day 35 the paper was worn but the cigarette filter itself was still completely intact.
Day 35
Which is where my 1st post left off.

On now to the 2nd phase of the test. I switched gears and simulated the cigarette butt emptying out into a river. I doubled the daily agitation to 50 swirls. And I added a second piece of trash for comparison.
Day 37
Let's see what happens.
Day 40 - paper receipt settled to bottom
Day 47 - receipt already disintegrating
Day 51 - filter paper finally unraveling
Day 61
And finally, to today.
Day 69
And for fun, here's a closeup, taken this morning during the 30 seconds it's been out of the water since August 28.
Day 69-b
The filter paper is gone. The receipt has turned into an unrecognizable pulpy mass. But the cigarette butt lives on. Because it's plastic: a polyester called cellulose acetate.

Again, 5.5 trillion cigarettes are smoked each year. If even a miraculous 90% of them were disposed of properly, that leaves 550 billion littered each year. 550,000,000,000. That is 17,440 cigarette butts littered every second. Every second.

Here's another way of looking at it. Say a cigarette butt is an inch long. In only 20 days' time enough would be littered to reach the moon and back. And that's if only 10% of all cigarettes are littered. Do you think only 10% of all cigarettes are littered?

So my experiment goes on. Now at a little over 2 months, I'm going to switch to saltwater to simulate it reaching the ocean. And again, we'll see what happens.


  1. Whenever I see someone throw a butt out their car window, if I get the opportunity I pull along side and asked how much they paid for their car. Then, no matter how much they answer, I ask if it came with an ashtray.

  2. I like it! Death-defying in certain places maybe.