How often do you look on the ground when you walk? These days, we are more preoccupied with staring at our phones or listening to our favourite songs or podcasts than looking where we step. However, there are things on the ground that should worry us, and it is litter. Litter in the streets pollutes water, air and soil and it does not matter if there is no water body or field around, litter always finds its way through numerous channels being spread by wind and runoff. And there is a type of lightweight litter, especially in urban areas, that is particularly good at it and you can see it literally everywhere, I am talking about cigarette butts.
Have you ever noticed how many cigarette butts is lying on the ground? I ask you to check it yourself next time you walk through your town. We live in Barcelona and just by looking out of my balcony on the first floor, I can see at least 20 butts on the ground.
Yearly, 6 trillion cigarettes are smoked worldwide, and 4.5 trillion cigarettes are littered in the environment. That means that only every fourth cigarette smoked is properly disposed!
The reasons behind are rather social. Flicking the cigarette butt away is considered cool and is still generally accepted in the society. Many people would react if you threw a plastic bottle on the ground, but when done with cigarette butt, no one bats an eye.
Many consider cigarette butts as biodegradable. I cannot even count the times I heard “it´s gonna decompose soon anyway” and it truly makes me angry. Cigarette butts consist of four main components:
The filter itself is made of synthetic polymer called cellulose acetate. If it would be just cellulose, no problem, cellulose is biodegradable, but the subsequent chemical treatment makes it non-biodegradable. This treatment involves acetic anhydride, acetic acid and finally plasticizers to make the filters softer and more flexible. On the other hand, plasticizers also make the filters more difficult to decompose. And that is just a beginning! Every cigarette contains over 5000 compounds with at least 150 of them with confirmed carcinogenic and mutagenic potential. And I have not mentioned the high concentration of heavy metals like arsenic or lead. And such a yummy mixture gets leaked into the environment every year 4.5 trillion times. The problem is that a cigarette butt can float for long periods of time before finally becoming saturated with water enough to sink, which then allows their transport by rivers and currents. This process consequently spreads the contamination and explains why the compounds leaked from cigarette butts were detected in aquatic environments.
Why is it a problem, you ask? Just nicotine itself can reduce plant grow. Add the other chemicals and you can see how much we are poisoning our home causing genetic changes and mutations in animals and plants. One cigarette butt can contaminate between 10-1000 litres of water. And that´s just one! Moreover, cigarette butts have been found in the stomach contents of marine fauna that accidentally ingested them during feeding.
Additional problem that arises with cigarette butts in the environment is the microplastic. I already mentioned that the filters are made of synthetic polymer, which cannot biodegrade. Instead of that, it slowly disintegrates (within 10-15 years) to produce millions and millions of tiny pieces called microplastic. Microplastics, like cigarette butts, are literally everywhere, but the problem is that unlike the butts, we cannot spot the microplastic. Or sometimes we can as the upper limit for plastic being called micro- is 5mm, but that does not change anything.
Recent studies show that we digest about a tablespoon of microplastics every week. It is in the water we drink; in the food we eat and even in the air we breathe. They even found microplastics in human embryo, namely dyed polypropylene, and thermoplastic polymers. How does it affect us? We don´t know yet, but it surely won´t be anything positive.
All the above are the reasons, why we decided to do something about it! We are already helping to clean the beaches and streets of Barcelona with cigarette butts being the most frequent find on the ground. However, these clean-ups are not the solution. They help to spread the awareness and show how much litter is all around us, but in general is very difficult to pick up all these smaller litter items as they are hard to spot and are also good at “hiding”. Ideal solution would be to ban smoking, but that would make too many people angry and why stopping people to destroy their bodies? Thus, we must find a way to stop people destroying the environment. And for that we came up with homemade pocket ashtrays made by using The Tetra Pak packaging of milk or juice. We call them RESHTRAY or RESHTRAYS. You can make it in 5 minutes using things that everyone has at home and by doing it you can also help to protect the environment.
Handing out portable ashtrays is not totally new thing. There are several initiatives around the globe doing just that. These ashtrays are often in form of a plastic cone that a person receives when entering beach, for example, and must be properly emptied upon leaving the beach. This proofed to be an effective method to reduce the amount of litter on the beaches, but our solution has a couple more advantages. First, almost everyone can make this type of pocket ashtray at home using basic things – ruler, scissors, stapler, and milk/juice carton. Second, our ashtray is a form of upcycling. Third, they make a cool and practical gift for smokers among your friends and family members and fourth they look cooler than the cones. Plus, you can close them and have them with you at all times.
Our ultimate goal is to travel around the world, make these pocket ashtrays and hand them for free to anyone interested. We want to encourage people to make them for smokers they know and generally spread the awareness about litter in nature. Plus, we plan to do that while also continuing with our clean-ups, joining forces with local groups of like-minded people, and thus accelerating even more the spread of knowledge.
Many people told us we should be selling these pocket ashtrays, but that does not align with the way we want to do this. We simply want to encourage people to do small acts of kindness by offering our idea for free to everyone. Planet Earth is our only home, and we should take a proper care of it. Historically, that has not been much true, but recently you can see thousands and thousands of people and companies doing various steps towards more sustainable way of living and protection of environment. It does not matter how big or small these steps are, even the smallest thing like putting the cigarette butt in the pocket ashtray instead of throwing it on the ground can later lead to something more. The most difficult thing is always to start and that is what we want encourage people to do.