The movement against plastic straws has gained so much strength that over a dozen cities have actually passed laws restricting them or banning them. But when it comes to ocean trash, straws are not the only problem — not by far.
In fact, cigarette butts may be an even bigger issue.
By sheer quantity, cigarette butts are the most abundant item of trash in the oceans. They're also the most abundant piece of trash on beaches.
According to the Ocean Conservancy, which sponsors a beach cleanup every year, over 60 million cigarette butts have been collected from beaches around the world during the last 32 years. That's about one-third of all collected trash items.
A cigarette butt, or the filter of a cigarette, is made from cellulose acetate, a type of plastic that takes a decade or more to break down.
When someone tosses a cigarette butt on the beach, not only are they littering a piece of plastic; they are also potentially contaminating the ocean with hundreds of chemicals that are used to treat tobacco.
Cigarette manufacturers first started including filters with their products back in the 1950s, when health concerns about cigarettes were starting to grow.
Research has since shown, however, that filters do not do anything to reduce the harmful health effects of smoking.
Manufacturers continued to include the filters so they could be used as a marketing tool. But they serve no other purpose.
Why stop at banning plastic straws? Why not ban cigarette filters? It may not be as impossible as it sounds.
Tobacco companies have actually worried about being held responsible for mass cigarette litter for the past two decades, long before the anti-straw crusade began. This inside information comes from Thomas Novotny, a professor of public health who founded the Cigarette Butt Pollution Project.
Novotny says cigarette manufacturers have already considered multiple strategies to cut down on butt littering, including anti-litter campaigns, biodegradable filters and mass distribution of ash trays.
If the industry is already concerned about pollution (albeit for the sake of their own reputation, and not necessarily for the environment), maybe they'd be open to a ban on cigarette filters. With continued effort from environmental activists, that may just become a reality.