Thursday, December 30, 2010

Ashes to Ashes, Part III

Long-time readers may remember that I'm doing a cigarette filter decay test (first post here, November followup here). It's been almost two months since my last update, so it seemed a good time for a new one!

The premise was simple: I'd read that cigarette butts are plastic, cellulose acetate, and that they don't break down like natural fibers. So I wanted to see if it was true. My experiment began on August 28, 2010, with a freshly scavenged cigarette butt. I plunked it into a bucket of fresh water to simulate it being tossed into a gutter and carried to a nearby river or stream.
Day 1
Each day I swirled the water 25 times to simulate the scouring effect of the river. Over the next five weeks, the cigarette butt became waterlogged & sank, and the paper started flaking off.
Day 35
At Day 3537, I switched to saltwater to simulate the filter reaching the ocean. I then added a rock for extra scouring, and upped my daily swirls to 50. I tossed in a piece of paper flotsam too, for comparison.
Day 37
By a little over two months, the receipt was a mushy pulp, and the filter paper was gone.
Day 69
But the cigarette lived on.
Day 69-b
Which is where I left it off.

Three weeks later, November 26, it still looked mostly the same - tar stains and all.
Day 91
Then it occurred to me that something was lacking. I had the seawater right, and the sand at the bottom, and the rock, and the swirling. But I hadn't added any new life - I hadn't added the micro-organisms that could potentially digest this thing and break it down. So on December 1 I added a couple teaspoons of yeast. Would anything happen?
Day 99 - December 4
Why yes. Yes something would happen! It worked like a charm. The yeast activated (slowly - the water was only room temperature after all). Within a few days it had devoured the paper pulp and left a brown, slightly smelly residue in the bottom and along the sides of the bin. But the cigarette butt? Unchanged, unaffected. Uneaten.

Moving on through Hannukah, my early-December birthday, and finally Christmas, we come to today, December 30, 2010:
Day 125
Day 125 - Ready for the closeup
So. More than 4 months in, under fairly savage treatment, attacked by sand, rock, swirl stick, bacteria, light, water, salt. And this still looks like what it is: a used, fouled cigarette butt.

Cigarette butts are a scourge. They are everywhere. In gutters, playgrounds, plantingsparks. Flicked out of car windows, stubbed out at the beach. I've recovered some 2,000 from Bay View. Danielle Richardet in North Carolina has collected over 12,000! With no sign of stopping.

They're not just ugly, they're poison. One used cigarette butt in two gallons of water is enough to kill the low-order life in that water. The world produces 5.5 trillion cigarettes each year. If only 10% of those were littered, that's still 550 billion -- 550,000,000,000 -- cigarette butts polluting our world. Each year. Here's a handy list of just a few of those pollutants:
Pick any, they're all good
And, as I hope I'm starting to show, they don't break down. That cigarette your co-worker flicked into the gutter last winter? Still around. The cigarette your careless buddy tossed out the car window a decade or two ago when you were all young & crazy? Still around.

But don't worry, it's got plenty of company.


  1. Thank you for your super comment over at mine Harry. Hope you had a good Christmas and wishing you all the best for 2011 to you and your family! Keep up the great work here and at WeDig - it's all fascinating stuff! :) Catherine

  2. Seriously, you do the best experiments!!! Reading this post makes me wish you lived here in NC... we'd be a force to be reckoned with ;) (But.. Maine does need you... so I won't petition for a move! ;))

    Has anyone else done a study like this that would be written in "journal-type" form?? I'd love to present it along with everything that I have to the Board of Aldermen here :)

  3. Catherine, it's great to hear from you here. Happy New Year! And do give Robert Frost a read-through if you get a chance; his New Hampshire from 90-100 years ago can still be echoed in nooks & crannies here in Maine next door. Great stuff. So honest, you forget you're reading poetry, and just feel like you're looking over the shoulder of someone who really sees the world around him.

    Danielle, we just need to blanket the East Coast! 2 states down, a dozen to go. :) I haven't seen anyone publish a cigarette butt test like the one I've done. (Though there may be dusty corners of the interwebs I haven't found!) If anything I've done can be helpful to you, it's yours. Or if it'd be helpful to write it up in a different way, let me know and I'll see if I can pull something together.

  4. very cool :)

    [well not really in regards to the persistence and toxicity of butts, but cool research and work to make us more aware]

  5. Thx for the kind words Mark! I agree, it bites that the pollution is out there, but it's actually kind of fun being able to test out a hypothesis first-hand.

  6. I found your blog through "Protect the Ocean," who honored you today. Well deserved! I do clean-ups at Texas Beach, the James River in Richmond VA. It's a newly discovered "hipster" place, where kids remember to clean up their picnic trash. However, they seem to think c-butts are biodegradable. You've made the point very clearly.