The unfortunate tenacity of the most common piece of litter - over 750 million to 1,500 million pounds of cigarette butt waste
Cigarette butts have the proud distinction of being the most common form of litter on America's beaches. Some 6 trillion cigarettes are manufactured on Earth each year, and between 750 million to 1,500 million pounds of cigarette butt waste — largely made of a plastic-like material called cellulose acetate — are ultimately flung to the ground annually, according to the World Health Organization.
To be fair, not all cigarettes are flung or flicked to the ground. Over a quarter of littered cigarette are stomped, while around 35 percent are "dropped with intent." Just one percent of smokers shoot for a receptacle, but like Shaq at the free-throw line, miss.
Dumping your waste on the ground, which is at best a lame and short-sighted activity, isn't some mindless, subconscious habit. It's a committed effort, explained Wes Schultz, a social psychologist who has diligently observed and researched the phenomenon of people's propensity to litter cigarettes.
"People know what they’re doing, but they choose to do it anyway," Schultz, a professor of psychology at California State University San Marcos, said in an interview. And it's quite common. In formal, peer-reviewed studies, Schultz and other researchers observed smokers littering cigarette butts a whopping 65 percent of the time.
"It's not a matter of convincing people not to do it," said Schultz. "It's a matter of making the trash disposal easy."
"There's a common misconception that the litter you see on beaches is from people smoking on beaches," Sherry Lippiatt, who works at NOAA's Marine Debris Program, said in an interview. Instead, rivers, storm drains, and the inexorable movement of things downriver brings someone's flicked cigarette butt to the beaches.