Tobacco Companies to Pay for Cigarette Butt Pollution in Spain

We need this kind of producer responsibility everywhere.

Cigarette butts on beach

Lienkie / Getty Images

For many people, the first signs of spring are the sounds of birds and the budding of trees. Where I live in Toronto, the most prominent sign of spring is the sight of cigarette butts in the thawing snowbanks. In sunnier Spain, they are a problem all year round, and the government has passed new rules to charge cigarette manufacturers for picking them up.

The government expects the new initiative to collect close to a billion Euros. This is an excellent example of extended producer responsibility (EPR), "a policy approach under which producers are given a significant responsibility—financial and/or physical—for the treatment or disposal of post-consumer products." Let's do this everywhere.

Butts are a big deal: trillions are disposed of into the environment each year. According to the Ocean Conservancy, cigarette butts break down into microplastics, release all the toxic chemicals they have absorbed and are often consumed by wildlife. They are the most littered item found on beaches around the globe.

"During Ocean Conservancy's annual International Coastal Cleanup in 2021, over 78,000 cigarette butts were removed from coastal areas in Florida alone, with over 1.2 million cigarette butts removed globally. While the health consequences of smoking and secondhand smoke are well understood, the harm these discarded cigarette butts present to wildlife, flora and also human health are often forgotten." 

As of January 1, 2023, cigarette smoking has been banned on public beaches in Miami Beach to deal with the problem. In Spain, the nation is making moves and made 525 beaches (roughly 17.5% of all its beaches) smoke-free in 2021.

World Health Organization

In Spain, where almost every fifth adult and adolescent smokes—18% of adults smoked tobacco in 2020 and 21% of adolescents aged 15–16 smoked cigarettes in 2019—the health, economic and environmental impact of tobacco use is substantial.

Treehugger has long been calling for deposits on everything as the best way to eliminate litter and solve the problems of recycling. Still, it never occurred to us that something as small as a cigarette butt could work in a deposit system. But that's what the government of Catalonia proposed last year: a 20-cent deposit on every cigarette butt, which would almost double the price of a pack of cigarettes. 

Steven Burgen reported in The Guardian that it would keep the streets cleaner and provide and have additional benefits. "A similar levy on plastic bottles and aluminium cans introduced in New York City in 1982 has provided the homeless with a small but steady income," wrote Burgen.

Where I live, we pay significant deposits on wine and beer bottles, and poor people picking them up is a thriving industry, and you never see an empty bottle on the street. Perhaps the government here in Toronto should put deposits on cigarette butts before spring—when the snow melts, it will be like winning the lottery.