Cellulose acetate-based cigarette filter is considered the world's most littered form of plastic. With close to 4.5 trillion butts polluting the global environment, this form of litter accounts for close to 26,454 tonnes of waste generated annually in India. Though one of the neglected waste streams, Oceans Conservancy, an international advocacy group, categorised cigarette butts as second among the top three articles collected during beach clean-ups globally. Numerous studies document filters as becoming accumulated masses of potentially toxic waste, posing physical harm to land and marine life when ingested and potentially polluting groundwater near landfills not containing leachate.
A recent study by the Indian Institute of Toxicology suggests that cigarette butts under ambient conditions showed only 37.8% degradation in two years, noting it may pollute long after disposal. The study also went on to suggest the "recycling of cellulose acetate after recovery from the cigarette butts" as one of the immediate solutions to the problem until further data is generated. "Concerned" with the manner of disposal of cigarette/bidi butts in India, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has directed the Central Pollution Control Board to lay down guidelines for the disposal of cigarette butts, in the interest of the environment, within three months.
Falling under the category of post-consumer waste, cigarette litter could easily be categorised as a public nuisance, especially for those that have fewer resources to clean it. While ignorance has been a convenient veil, clean-up and disposal costs of such waste need to be borne by the polluter. Litter clean-up costs have risen steadily around major cities in the world, leading to action against this form of pollution.
San Francisco estimated that clearing up tobacco waste costs $22 million annually, while the United Kingdom estimated the cost as close to 140 million pounds annually to clean up burnt cigarette butts. Recently, France ordered the tobacco industry to take voluntary action to help curb cigarette butts from littering the streets and contaminating water, or face mandatory legislation. Further, the European Union issued a directive for reduction of impact of plastic products on the environment by including cigarette butts under Extended Producers Responsibility (EPR) and proposing incentives to develop less-polluting alternatives.
The Government of India recently proposed draft rules for EPR, which would make a manufacturer responsible for managing post-consumer plastic waste. There is definitely more than one reason for cigarette litter to be covered under the EPR scheme to make producers responsible and assign accountability.
This would also be consistent with article 5.3 of the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control Treaty that India signed in 2004. This may also mean that the final user will end up paying marginally more for the product and indirectly supporting environmental clean-up.
Last-mile collection may be the most challenging part of managing this stream. India could take cue from countries such as Japan who have set up dedicated smoking zones in public/private spaces so that butt waste can be collected and managed effectively from designated places. The Plastic Waste Management Rules 2016, combined with a slew of steps by states to curb single-use plastics, has definitely seen a political consensus in India. A steady increase in tobacco consumption is bound to exacerbate the litter associated with it. Voluntary product stewardship leading to EPR will certainly have a profound impact on increasing stakeholder awareness on this form of litter. The inclusion of cigarette butt litter under Plastic EPR will create more resources to deal with this form of waste. NGT, flagging off a pertinent issue, provides the government with a certain opportunity not only to improve its stand on cigarette butt litter but also allay concerns related to its waste management.
Kaushik Chandrasekhar is an associate fellow and Suneel Pandey is director, Centre for Waste Management, TERI.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared in Hindustan Times, and is published by special syndication arrangement.