Long Read

Plastics, the Environment and the Tobacco Industry

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There is global consensus that urgent action is required on climate change – if countries fail to respond to this emergency and temperatures continue to increase, the impacts for our planet will be catastrophic. Floods, famine and the mass displacement of peoples are inevitable.1 Governments, corporations and individuals all have a responsibility for preventing this devastation, and the tobacco industry is no exception. Tobacco already kills eight million people every year, and, irrespective of any impact of newer products like e-cigarettes, the huge global burden of tobacco mortality and morbidity can be expected to remain for decades to come. On top of this tobacco is taking a significant toll on the environment, and the people it supports.

Tobacco growing, manufacturing, distribution, and use, all contribute to global warming through the emission of greenhouse gases. In fact, the tobacco product life cycle releases an estimated 80 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent every single year.23 The tobacco industry’s emissions are larger than those for entire countries, including Denmark, Croatia and Afghanistan, and are comparable to emissions from the oil, fast fashion and meat industries.4 Yet the tobacco industry rarely features in discussions about reducing emissions.

World No Tobacco Day 2022 focused entirely on the environmental damage caused by the tobacco industry (Image 1). At each stage of the tobacco life cycle, tobacco damages the environment: from the intensive farming of the crop, which takes place almost exclusively in low- and middle- income countries (LMICs), and the manufacture of tobacco and cigarettes, to the distribution and use of the products, and finally to the discarding of tobacco product waste.

An image of cigarette butts and plastic waste

Image 1: Cigarette butts leach toxins into the environment and degrade into microplastics (Source: exposetobacco.org)

The growing popularity of newer nicotine and tobacco products like e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products (HTPs), adds to this existing problem. The ‘Big 4’ transnational tobacco companies all produce these newer sources of addictive nicotine, promoting them as alternatives to cigarettes, cigars and other more conventional tobacco products.5 Many of these products are designed to be disposed of after single or short-term use. While the precise environmental impacts of manufacturing electronic devices is currently unknown, there are numerous reports of nicotine-contaminated plastic and metal, as well as lithium-ion batteries, that are being improperly discarded into the environment from these products.6

It has been estimated that if cigarette production ceased tomorrow, it would be equivalent to removing 16 million cars from the roads each year.7 While banning tobacco and newer nicotine products altogether is an unlikely global scenario, regulatory solutions are urgently needed to mitigate the detrimental global impacts caused by the tobacco industry’s disregard for the environment.

Scale of the problem

  • Not only does tobacco damage the lungs of those who consume it, tobacco also destroys the lungs of the earth – its forests. Globally, approximately 600 million trees are felled every year to make 6 trillion cigarettes.7

    Tobacco crops quickly deplete the soil of its nutrients, which means that neither tobacco - or any other crops - are able to thrive on former tobacco plantations. More land has to be cleared for tobacco growing, and consequently more forests and wildlife are destroyed for an agricultural product that, when manufactured into tobacco products, is a leading global cause of premature death and disability.

    In addition, tobacco growing often uses agrochemicals and pesticides, which put farmers’ health at risk, pollute soil and waterways, and poison wildlife.

  • The amount of energy required to make tobacco and cigarettes is the most significant environmental impact of manufacturing.  The source of energy each manufacturing plant uses determines just how bad the environmental impact will be.8

    In 2019, 815,985 pounds of toxic waste were released from tobacco manufacturing plants in the United States alone.7 However, almost 90% of tobacco leaf production occurs in LMICs (as defined by the World Bank) so the majority of the environmental burden is felt by these countries.8

    Tobacco leaf is often shipped from dozens of countries where it is grown, to multiple other countries where it is manufactured. Whilst both tobacco production and consumption are now highest in LMICs, many high-income countries import tobacco in order to manufacture cigarettes, cigars, and other tobacco products which are then exported world-wide. In 2014, the transportation of tobacco products amounted to 24.5 billion tonne-kilometres of freight.8 This is more than the total amount of freight that moves through the entire UK rail network in one year.9

    Concerns have also been raised that the manufacturing and distribution process for electronic devices may be even more damaging than for cigarettes, given the number of constituent parts.10

  • According to a report by the World Health Organization (WHO), tobacco smoking pollutes indoor and outdoor environments and remains a pervasive and persistent source of human toxicants even after smoking has been eliminated from indoor environments. In 2012, toxic emissions from cigarette smoking included 3000–6000 metric tonnes of formaldehyde; 12 000–47 000 metric tonnes of nicotine; and the three major greenhouse gases found in tobacco smoke – carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxides.11

    In addition to the impact of this second hand smoke, third hand smoke - the dust and remnant chemical material that remains on surfaces and in dust - is now understood to be absorbed through inhalation and skin contact and is toxic, carcinogenic, and especially hazardous to children.11

  • Cigarette butts are the most littered item on the planet, with an estimated 4.5 trillion disposed of improperly every year, many of which end up in our waterways. Nicotine, pesticide residues and heavy metals leach from butts into the water, poisoning fish and the microorganisms on which they feed.12 But that isn’t all - cigarette filters are also made of a form of plastic which degrades into microplastics. As well as being consumed by fish, recent reports suggest that microplastics have now been found in human blood and organs.13 Whilst the health effects of this plastic accumulation are as yet unknown, we do know that microplastics cause damage to human cells in laboratory settings.14 Newer products are certainly not a solution to the plastic problem. In 2018, Americans generated 2.7 million tons of consumer electronic waste (including e-cigarette waste) that, if disposed of in a standard refuse bin, ends up in landfills or incinerators. The exponential rise in disposable e-cigarettes and single-use pod-style devices, such as Juul, are compounding the tobacco waste problem. In 2022, two of the ‘big 4’ companies launched new disposable e-cigarettes into this fast-growing market. These devices and refill pods cannot be recycled with other plastic waste because they are contaminated with nicotine. Also, like other e-cigarettes, they contain lithium batteries. Even if these devices are not littered, the metal ends up in landfills – enough waste to make 1200 car batteries every year.15 A 2020 study of Juul e-cigarette users and their disposal methods revealed that, in the US, 51% of young users disposed of pods and devices in the bin, 17% in recycling bins (that are not appropriate) and 10% reported littering them.16 Despite e-cigarette companies having to submit information on the environmental impact of their products to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in September 2020, this information is not yet publicly available. The limited reporting by these companies downplays any potential environmental impacts.16 However, a 2022 Lancet article suggested that e-cigarettes are likely to be particularly damaging to the planet because they lead to three types of product waste, including batteries, e-liquid containers, and packaging.171819

Regulatory Solutions

The best way to reduce the environmental impacts – and indeed the health impacts – of both cigarettes and newer products is to get users to quit and make sure non-users never start. Researchers estimate that a drop in global consumption of conventional cigarettes to the 1970 level (3.26 trillion cigarettes per year) would almost halve tobacco’s global environmental footprint.8 However, given the urgency of the climate crisis, we must find additional policy solutions to supplement policies aimed at reducing consumption.

Clean-ups, package warnings, biodegradable filters, and consumer education interventions are all ‘downstream’ activities, which are not as effective as ‘upstream’ interventions. For example, while better labelling on products might make consumers more aware of the chemical hazards of tobacco product waste, it is unlikely that industry will take any further action voluntarily. They could instead cite such labelling as adequate consumer information about disposal. Upstream solutions, such as banning the sale of filtered cigarettes and all disposable tobacco products, are likely to be more effective interventions and make more sense in terms of a broader, more positive environmental impact. Flavour bans on both reusable and disposable devices may also reduce the appeal of these products to young people, and slow the rate of uptake.

Ban filters and problem products

The EU Single Plastics Directive 2019 will charge manufacturers for continuing to use plastic material in filters, to encourage them to come up with alternatives such as biodegradable filters.20 Yet, plastic-free filters still leach many harmful chemicals from the smoked tobacco.

Filters are considered ‘the biggest fraud of our time’: they do not offer any health benefits to smokers but have actually increased health risks. Many tobacco control experts argue that now is the time to ban cigarette filters altogether.2122 Allowing manufacturers to develop filter alternatives, gives the industry further opportunities to greenwash their products, and this risks further deceiving the public about the value of filters on cigarettes. Allowing filters to exist in any form will continue to fuel the misperception that filters offer some protective value.

“The plastic cigarette filter is not only an environmental pollutant; it should be considered a human hazard. It makes it easier for youth to start smoking, discourages smokers from quitting because they think they are doing something to prevent disease, and actually increases the risk for some lung cancer types. A ban on filtered cigarette sales will likely reduce consumption, discourage initiation, and result in far less tobacco product waste.” Tom Novotny, Professor Emeritus of Public Health.

New Zealand became the first country in the world to suggest a filter ban in its 2021 Smokefree Environments and Regulated Products Bill proposal. As with plain, or standardised, packaging for tobacco products, it is possible that if one country, state, or even a local jurisdiction bans the sale of filtered cigarettes for environmental reasons, others will follow.

Tobacco companies instruct consumers to dispose of butts properly and encourage their customers to get involved in environmental clean ups – often sponsored by tobacco companies. This is a particular form of corporate social responsibility (CSR) which should be seen as a cynical attempt to avoid accountability and any further regulation of their products. Even in landfills, butts release toxic leachates that can get into surrounding ground water. While picking up the butts may temporarily reduce their numbers on beaches and other public places, most will have already deposited chemicals into waterways. Picking up even thousands of butts during clean-ups will not make a significant difference in the trillions of butts deposited each year into the global environment.

Help farmers diversify

Health organisations should also encourage infrastructural support for tobacco farmers to switch to alternative crops that are more environmentally beneficial and support human health instead of threaten it. For example, Kenyan tobacco farmers have recently benefited from support from a collaboration between the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization and the WHO to switch to equally profitable food crops. As part of the World Food Programme, alternative crops are making Kenyan farmers more profitable compared to when they were tobacco growers.23

Polluter pays

There is a fundamental misalignment between tobacco companies’ sustainability talk in annual reports and their commitment to newer nicotine and tobacco products, particularly when it comes to so called ‘disposable’ products. Extended Producer Responsibility schemes are gaining popularity with policy makers, the premise being that tobacco companies ought to be legally responsible for reducing and managing their environmental footprint, a principle which could apply to all stages of the product life cycle.

Extended Producer Responsibility schemes could ensure that non-toxic and more sustainable agricultural practices are used in tobacco production (e.g. clean energy rather than fossil fuels ought to be used for powering manufacturing plants).8 Similarly, end-of-life buyback initiatives for electronic products would limit inappropriate disposal of hazardous materials.24

Systemic change – not greenwashing

Successful policy solutions to the tobacco epidemic result when advocates and policy makers capitalise on public sentiment. Today more than ever before environmental concerns are top-of-mind for many people, especially youth. Given the global discussion and action currently underway on climate change, there is an unprecedented opportunity to implement upstream solutions to achieve both health and environmental goals simultaneously. Filter and product bans (including disposable electronic devices) and higher taxes on tobacco and nicotine products (especially on those products that appeal to youth) are key, alongside ensuring that tobacco corporations clean up their business practices and reduce their environmental footprint across the entire product life cycle.

While the impact of tobacco on the right to health has been widely recognised, the impact of tobacco on the right to a healthy environment has not received the same level of attention. Given the mounting evidence of the impact of tobacco on the environment it is critical that the global UN Human Rights as well as environmental agendas address the negative environmental impact of tobacco.

On 28th July 2022, the United Nations General Assembly officially recognised that everyone on the planet has a human right to a healthy environment an calling on states to increase efforts to ensure access to a “clean, healthy and sustainable environment” for their citizens.

In March 2022, 175 nations adopted a resolution launching the development of an international legally binding treaty to end plastic pollution to address the full lifecycle of plastic including production, design and disposal. Treaty negotiations will begin in November 2022 and are expected to be finalised by the end of 2024. The plastic treaty provides an opportunity to eliminate all tobacco-related, single-use plastic pollution.

The global community is fortunate to have the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) as a tool to address the global harm caused by tobacco, but UN environmental platforms, such as the UN Ocean conferences, the UN water Conference, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the meetings of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification and the meetings of the upcoming international treaty to end plastic pollution are tools that can be used in tobacco control. By working synergistically through UN Human Rights and environmental mechanisms along with the WHO FCTC, the world will be able to address the environmental impact of tobacco products and achieve tobacco control, health, environmental and development objectives.

Systemic change is necessary in order to protect the planet from the catastrophic environmental impact of tobacco growing, production, use, and disposal. Advocates, governments and global organisations such as the WHO and the United Nations can all capitalise on this pivotal moment in history for the benefit of our planet. Global advocacy and regulation are required to force the tobacco industry to take measures to limit the destruction it causes to humans and to our planet.

More than lip service is required; our planet depends on it.

Authors

Karen Evans-Reeves, Tom Novotny, Laurent Huber, Marzia Violini.

Go further

Tobacco and the Environment: Tobacco is not only a health issue – it is also an environmental issue

From smoking to vaping: a new environmental threat?

Cigarette butts: How the no 1 most littered objects are choking our coasts

Tobacco and the Environment

Greenwashing

TCRG Research

K. Evans-Reeves, K. Lauber, R. Hiscock, The ‘filter fraud’ persists: the tobacco industry is still using filters to suggest lower health risks while destroying the environment, Tobacco Control, 2022;31:e80-e82.

References

  1. United Nations Climate Change Conference, The Paris Agreement, undated, accessed October 2022
  2. M. Zafeiridou; N. Hopkinson, N. Voulvoulis, Cigarette Smoking: An Assessment of Tobacco’s Global Environmental Footprint Across Its Entire Supply Chain”Environ. Sci. Technol. 2018, 52, 15, doi:10.1021/acs.est.8b01533
  3. Truth Initiative, Tobacco and the environment, March 2021, accessed October 2022
  4. H. Ritchie & M. Roser, Our World in Data: CO2 emissions, 2020, accessed October 2022
  5. STOP and WHO, Talking Trash: Behind the Tobacco Industry’s “Green” Public Relations, 12 May 2022, accessed May 2022
  6. Truth Initiative, A toxic, plastic problem: E-cigarette waste and the environment, 8 March 2021, accessed May 2022
  7. abcTruth Initiative, Tobacco and the Environment, website, 8 March 2021, accessed October 2022
  8. abcdeM. Zafeiridou; N. Hopkinson, N. Voulvoulis, Cigarette Smoking: An Assessment of Tobacco’s Global Environmental Footprint Across Its Entire Supply Chain”Environ. Sci. Technol. 2018, 52, 15, doi:10.1021/acs.est.8b01533
  9. Pricewaterhouse Coopers International, Getting the best from the UK's rail services, PwC website, undated, accessed December 2022
  10. Y.H. Hendlin, S.A. Bialous, The environmental externalities of tobacco manufacturing: A review of tobacco industry reportingAmbio, 2020;(49)1:17-34, doi: 10.1007/s13280-019-01148-3
  11. abWorld Health Organization, Tobacco and its environmental impact: an overview, 2017, accessed September 2022
  12. E. Slaughter, R. M. Gersberg, K. Watanabe et al, Toxicity of cigarette butts, and their chemical components, to marine and freshwater fish, Tobacco Control,  2011;20(Suppl 1):i25–i29, doi: 10.1136/tc.2010.040170
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  14. D. Carrington, Microplastics cause damage to human cells, study shows, The Guardian, 8 December 2021, accessed October 2022
  15. M. Chapman, Rise of Single-Use Vapes Sending Tonnes of Lithium to Landfill, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, 15 July 2022, accessed October 2022
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  22. M. C. I. van Schalkwyk, T. E. Novotny, M. McKee, No more butts, British Medical Journal, 2019;367:l5890, doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.l5890
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