Every year, Spanish taxpayers shoulder up to 21 euros each to pay for street cleaning across the country. Now, thanks to a new law, this cost will be the responsibility of tobacco manufacturers.

Retorna member Rezero’s report ‘Cigarette butts: Impacts and opportunities from the environmental, economic and regulatory perspective’ described the environmental and economic impacts caused by cigarette waste. This study was a pressure mechanism to ensure that the Spanish waste law implemented an extended producer responsibility approach for cigarette butts.

Cigarette butts are one of the most ubiquitous items littered in natural and urban environments. They have serious environmental, economic and public health impacts.

According to Surfrider Foundation Europe, a member of Seas At Risk, 4,500 billion cigarette butts are littered globally every year, with a single cigarette butt polluting up to 500 litres of water. The United Nations holds that these butts account for more than 766 million kilogrammes of “toxic trash” discarded each year. According to the World Health Organization, they are the most littered item in the world.

Collecting the butts from the public roads and beaches is a challenging, labourious, and costly task for municipal road-cleaning services, due to their small size and because the cleaning methods are not designed for a unitary sweep.

Once cigarette butts end up in the environment, they can cause serious environmental impacts. This is, in part, due to its composition of non-biodegradable plastic (cellulose acetate) filters that can eventually generate microplastics, as well as to the large number of toxic compounds produced from tobacco combustion. These toxins accumulate in the plastic filters and gradually leach into soil or water, making them both a contaminant and a threat to various ecosystems and living organisms.

Today, the clean-up of butts is assumed entirely by public administrations in Spain. The cost of road cleaning butts in Catalan municipalities can range from an estimated 12 to 21 euros per resident, per year, the costs climbing in coastal communities, according to the Rezero study. Plus, there are the cost to clean other areas the butts accumulate, such as sewage and water treatment plants and indirect costs linked to their impact on ecosystems, human health, tourism and other economic activities.

With the Spanish Waste and Contaminated Soil Law, all this will change. According to the law, 100 per cent of the management costs of cigarette butts must borne by the manufacturers: this is extended producer responsibility. However, no regulations have yet been implemented for its development, and there are many doubts from both supra-municipal and municipal administrations about how it will be carried out.

The Ministry for the Ecological Transition and the Demographic Challenge has assured that the regulation will be published during the first quarter of 2023.

Rezero considers both the deposit-refund system and fiscal measures as key instruments to comply with extended producer responsibility principles and to ensure that producers bear the costs of butt collection (infrastructure and logistics) and treatment, as well as the costs of cleaning up the environment. These instruments would drastically reduce their littering and lead to the selective collection of butts for their treatment and material recovery. In other places, a cigarette tax has been applied to achieve the dual objective of reducing tobacco consumption and to addressing the inflated costs of cleaning up cigarette butts. In France, producers funded a body tasked with managing the treatment of tobacco product waste.

It is essential that economic, regulatory, technical, and communicative instruments are developed to prevent or minimise the impacts tobacco product waste causes.

Rezero, a member of Retorna, is a non-profit foundation that works primarily in the territorial area of Catalonia, Balearic Islands, Spain and Europe. It creates knowledge and promotes innovative ideas, regulations and projects so that companies, public administrations and citizens can enjoy a production and consumption model towards Waste Zero, with no toxic materials and products that remain unused.