Littered cigarette butts are poisoning our oceans

We have launched a new national campaign – #BinTheButt – to stamp out cigarette litter, which causes significant damage to marine life.

We’re calling on smokers across the UK to rethink how they dispose of their cigarettes, as research* reveals that only half (53%) of Brits think that cigarette butts get washed into the sea if they get dropped, blown or washed down the drain.

Dropped cigarette butts are the most common form of littering, and just under four in ten (39%) smokers – equivalent to 3.6 million in the UK1 – admit to throwing a cigarette butt down a drain within the past month. However, one in ten (11%) do not even consider cigarette butts to be litter.

This research, made possible thanks to support from players of People’s Postcode Lottery, was carried out for Keep Britain Tidy by YouGov.

Only just over a third (38%) of smokers thought that cigarettes contain plastic, yet nearly four out of five (77%) smokers were concerned that the toxins from their cigarettes cause significant harm to marine life. Cigarette filters are comprised of thousands of chemical ingredients, including arsenic, lead and nicotine, all of which can leak into marine environments. In fact, studies have shown that just one cigarette butt per litre of water is highly toxic to fish2.

More than a fifth (22%) of Brits thought putting a cigarette down the drain was acceptable, which rose sharply to over half (52%) among smokers who smoke every day.

The research also showed that over a third of daily smokers (33%) thought that cigarette butts that get dropped down the drain were filtered out through the water treatment system, 8% thought they remained in the drains and 10% thought butts were biodegradable.

We’re tackling the problem with our new campaign, rolling out across the country this week, to raise awareness amongst smokers and highlight the link between the cigarette butt they drop on the street or down the drain and the impact it has on the marine environment³.

In 2017, The United Nations Development Programme described throwing cigarette butts on the ground as ‘the last socially acceptable form of littering’ and we are determined to turn the tide and make throwing your butt on the floor as socially unacceptable as ‘lighting up’ in a pub or restaurant.

To support the campaign, we have partnered with SEA LIFE Manchester to create a dramatic underwater seascape, which brings to life the impact of cigarettes in our oceans. Three one-metre ‘cigarette butt’ sculptures were installed inside one of the aquariums at SEA LIFE Manchester, creating a visual representation of what happens when cigarettes are littered in drains.

“Following Sir David Attenborough’s rallying cry to reduce plastic waste on Blue Planet 2, we wanted to show how simple everyday behaviour can affect the environment.

While flicking a cigarette down the drain may not seem harmful, we need to ensure smokers understand that this has a direct and often drastic impact on wildlife.”

-Allison Ogden-Newton, Keep Britain Tidy CEO


The campaign launched on Wednesday 29 August in Manchester city centre, where Keep Britain Tidy and Manchester City Council highlighted the problem with an installation of 40 giant cigarette butts in St Peter’s Square. We also engaged with smokers, encouraging them to bin their butts, offering portable ashtrays as an easy alternative to simply flicking them on the ground.

*All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. The total sample sizes were 4,146 GB adults and 502 smokers. Fieldwork was undertaken between 10th and 11th May 2018.  The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).

  1. Figure calculated by extrapolating 39% of the total number of smokers in the UK, with figures from: (2018)
  2. Research by E. Slaughter for BMJ (formerly British Medical Journal), into the effects of smoking litter on marine life:
  3. Findings from the United Nations Development Programme: (2017)

Keep Britain Tidy has received £400,000 to date from Postcode Green Trust, which is supported by players of People’s Postcode Lottery.