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We need to give cigarette butts the boot

Whilst we all look forward to the arrival of Extended Producer Responsibility in the UK in order to tackle wasteful packaging, smoking related litter is in danger of being left behind.

June 2020

The impact of smoking related litter is immense. Chiefly cigarette filters but also packaging, remains the most common form of litter both globally and across the UK, present on around 80% of sites surveyed by Keep Britain Tidy (KBT). The costs of clean-up for local authorities is estimated at around £150m and many other private landowners are affected by smoking litter. In addition, the environmental impacts are profound. Filters pollute the natural environment – stunting plant growth and once they have entered our waterways, its toxic chemicals harm wildlife with cigarette butts commonly found in the stomachs of fish and birds.

Despite the vast impact of their products, we know that three out of the four major tobacco companies that operate in the UK undertake no litter related activities whatsoever whilst the total financial contribution of the industry’s efforts on litter amounts to around £70k per annum, despite UK industry profits estimated at over £1 billion.

KBT has attempted over the last six months to engage these four major tobacco companies and gauge their desire to develop serious solutions aimed at tackling smoking related litter, in accordance with commitments they made at the 2015 HCLG Committee, chaired by Clive Betts MP. However, despite some encouraging noises, their proposals lack credibility. It is clear that the tobacco industry is unwilling and unable to make the level of commitment required to tackle the issue.

There is now a very real risk that the UK will be left behind as the rest of Europe moves forward with the introduction of an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) scheme on tobacco products.

In 2018, the then DEFRA Secretary of State Michael Gove gave a very clear commitment that the UK’s environmental standards and protections would not suffer following our departure from the EU. The current Secretary of State in opening the second reading of the Environment Bill said it is a keystone in the government’s vision to deliver the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth. Tackling the most pervasive form of litter pollution via a commitment to extend EPR to tobacco filters is entirely in keeping with this vision, providing the investment necessary to deliver impactful change, while being widely supported by the public.

An EPR scheme for tobacco products could cover the costs of awareness raising and behaviour change campaigns, data gathering, research and litter clean up, creating a budget for clean-up and prevention that could be open to a range of different organisations involved in the protection and enhancement of the natural environment. This also successfully navigates Article 5.3 of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), frequently pointed to by the industry in relation to their responsibilities towards costs of clean up.

The government has already signalled its intention to introduce EPR for packaging, through its Resource and Waste Strategy and soon to be enshrined within the Environment Bill. Government has also signalled its intention to explore EPR for five other areas including textiles, bulky waste and fishing gear and its openness to consider EPR for other waste streams, which we contend must now include cigarette filters.

The Government now has a clear and obvious opportunity to take action and extend the concept of EPR to the smoking industry and cigarette filters. We believe government could kick off a consultation process to allow this to happen within the next few months, but it will need to be convinced that there is both sufficient support and demand for such a scheme.

That’s why we would welcome the support of your organisation in joining KBT’s call for an EPR scheme for smoking related litter. You can support this call by:

  • Signing our letter to Defra
  • Join the Tidy Britain APPG meeting on Wednesday July 8th, 15:00 – 16:00 on Microsoft teams. Register here
For more information on any of the above please do not hesitate to contact us via

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Rupali Nahar-Williams, Executive Assistant, Keep Britain Tidy

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.