6 Dec 2021


A new report says Australia could stop around four billion plastic cigarette butts from entering the environment each year by making tobacco companies responsible for the pollution they help create.

The report produced by Equilibrium and commissioned by the World Wide Fund for Nature-Australia analyses seven strategies to reduce butt litter.

It’s estimated that placing direct responsibility on tobacco companies through a mandatory national product stewardship scheme could reduce cigarette butt pollution by more than 50 percent.

A national ban on single-use plastic cigarette filters would eliminate plastic entering the environment through littered butts.

The report says a levy of $0.004 (less than half a cent) per cigarette could raise $71 million per year to fund the product stewardship scheme. Alternatively, tobacco companies could be required to directly fund the scheme.

“Right now, taxpayers are footing the huge costs of cleaning up cigarette butt pollution undertaken by local, state governments and volunteers. A product stewardship scheme would shift costs and responsibility away from taxpayers and onto producers, users and polluters,” said Richard Leck, WWF-Australia’s Head of Oceans.

“It could boost collection, recovery and reprocessing of cigarette butts, support research and development to potentially ‘design out’ plastic filters, and improve public awareness of the impacts of cigarette pollution. Most people are unaware that butts contain plastic."

“Countries in Europe are already tackling this issue by holding tobacco companies accountable for providing solutions to butt litter. Product stewardship is an innovative and compelling means to drive industry responsibility and reduce plastic pollution.”

Current efforts to minimise cigarette pollution in Australia have largely focused on solutions directed at the individual smoker, such as disposal infrastructure and education. Continuing this approach would see little or no reduction in butt litter, according to the report.

“We need to find a better way to protect wildlife, the environment and people from the effects of cigarette litter,” said Mr Leck.

“Australia has made fantastic progress tackling other harmful single-use plastics, but cigarette butts are falling through the cracks."

“Cigarettes are consistently the most littered item in Australia. Of nearly 18 billion cigarettes smoked a year, up to half end up as litter. Laid end to end, these butts would stretch around Australia’s entire coastline more than six times."

“Cigarette butts can end up in our waterways and oceans and leach toxic materials. Butts have been found in the stomachs of birds, turtles, whales and fish, affecting their digestion and potentially leading to poisoning or starvation.”

Some local governments and anti-litter organisations are working to reduce cigarette pollution, but continued littering and accumulation of butts in the environment show further action is needed.

In 2004, Waverley Council banned smoking on all its beaches. Despite the ban, a council waste audit found nearly 20 percent of litter collected on Bondi Beach last summer was cigarette butts.

“Despite great work from Waverley Council and dedicated clean-up volunteers, including efforts to make Bondi smoke-free, plastic cigarette butts remain a significant problem,” said Sam McGuinness, Executive Manager, Sustainable Waverley.

Earlier this year the Australian Government announced a cigarette butt taskforce as part of its National Plastics Plan 2021 to reduce plastic litter.

Mr Leck said this taskforce should prioritise the development of a mandatory product stewardship scheme.

“The Australian Government needs to ensure tobacco companies are taking responsibility for the pollution caused by their products,” he said.

“Without new strategies and programs in place to reduce butt litter, Australia’s beautiful beaches and wildlife will continue to suffer.”