10:20am Tuesday 26 May 2020

Cigarette Butts: UCR’s Toxic Problem

man standing with container of cigarette butts

UCR Director of Sustainability John Cook stands with some of the 1,388 cigarette butts collected from five areas of campus during October’s “Butt Bash.” Photo by Ross French

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — On October 15, about 15 student volunteers from the UC Riverside Office of Sustainability and the student organization Sustainable UCR descended upon five areas that UCR Grounds had designated as “hotspots” for cigarette use, donned plastic gloves, and began the somewhat disgusting chore of picking up cigarette butts as part of the campus’ inaugural “Butt Bash.”

Following a protocol established by UC San Francisco that has been used in similar surveys across the UC system, the volunteers combed over the five areas, which encompassed half of the campus’ 10 designated smoking areas, and went through ash cans, lawns, planters and sidewalks to pick up the butts, finding more than 2,000 of them.

Then, two days later on October 17, they did it again, scouring the same five areas.  The total? In two days, an astonishing 1,388 butts were found. The survey will be repeated in February and May of 2014 to determine the impact of the UC-wide prohibition on smoking and tobacco use, and to find where additional education efforts are needed. The system wide policy goes into effect at UC Riverside on January 2, 2014 and encompasses all tobacco products as well as unregulated nicotine delivery systems such as e-cigarettes or “vapes.”

Jars full of the toxic, non-biodegradable stubs were on display Thursday, Nov. 21 at the Great American Smokeout at the HUB, where despite a constant rain, more than 300 students, staff and faculty learned about the hazards related to tobacco use and resources available to those who wish to quit.

“There were a lot of people who were very surprised that there is so much smoking taking place on campus,” UCR Director of Sustainability John Cook said. “It led to some interesting discussions. Some people talked about what they could do to stop, while others learned about the damage that cigarette butts can do to the environment.”

campus map.Cigarette butts are  the most commonly collected waste item found in beach clean-ups and are reported to comprise between 25 and 50 percent of all litter collected from roads and streets. The filters are not biodegradable and have a negative impact on the environment, containing carcinogenic chemicals, pesticides and nicotine that can leach into aquatic ecosystems.

This map of the campus core shows nine of the 10 designated smoking areas (red dots) and areas identified as “smoking abuse areas,” (blue areas) where smokers tend to smoke and leave cigarette butts behind. Photo courtesy UCR Office of Sustainability

“Many smokers have the bad habit of throwing their cigarette on the ground, rather than taking the time to dispose of it in a proper way,” Cook said. “They don’t think of it as littering, but that is exactly what it is, and it leaves a toxic mess for someone else to clean up. There are over four trillion cigarette butts thrown away every year.”

Another problem can occur when cigarette butts are thrown into trash cans. The smoldering remnants have caused trashcan fires.

“We get calls each quarter about trashcan fires that are generally started by cigarette butts,” Cook said.

Media Contact

Tel: (951) 827-5893
E-mail: [email protected]

Additional Contacts

John Cook, director of sustainability
E-mail: [email protected] 


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