For an Earth Free of Tobacco Waste

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By Yogi Hale Hendlin, PhD, Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, UCSF

We all know tobacco kills. But few stop to consider how tobacco also kills the planet. 

Especially as it serves no social or nutritional purpose, we should think twice about the environmental impacts of the farming, manufacturing, distribution, transport, and waste tobacco carries. For an industry that globally produces over 6 trillion cancer sticks annually, you might wonder about the product lifecycle of this dizzying number of cigarettes, and how this harms the environment. For Earth Day, we’re taking a look into how much the world sacrifices to produce this completely unnecessary product.

The environmental costs of tobacco fare no better than the health costs of using tobacco. As the 1995 World Health Organization (WHO) Bellagio Statement made this link: “tobacco poses a major challenge, not just to health, but also to environmental sustainability.” While precise quantification of the environmental harm of tobacco is not yet available, with the advent of public pressure on corporations to report the environmental costs of business, the major tobacco companies now create regular sustainability reports.

While tobacco industry sustainability reports give us some impact into the magnitude of the problem, they are insufficient for comprehending the cradle-to-grave environmental impacts of tobacco. Lack of regulatory oversight of these data further erodes the credibility, completeness, and accuracy of the numbers reported.

The United Nations Environmental Program’s 2013 Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) program’s report, Natural Capital at Risk — The Top 100 Externalities of Business found that for many industries, when fully accounting for their unaccounted environmental costs, 38% which are greenhouse gas emissions, 25% water use, 24% land use, and 7% air pollution—the majority would not be profitable. In essence, the TEEB report’s the unintended public subsidy of companies that only turn profits by foisting the environmental costs on others—other people, future generations, and the rest of the earth and its creatures. The tobacco industry, with its grueling labor-intensive farming practices, insatiable water and energy needs, chemical pollution, and toxic waste, is environmentally subsidized by taxpayer dollars.

Using True Cost Economics, which seeks to include the environmental externalities (unpaid costs) of business into the pricing of goods and services, it is doubtful that tobacco would still be a viable business. Added together with the health costs tobacco causes, and tobacco is clearly much more costly than any profit derived from it.

In this next sections, we’ll explore the various stages of tobacco production and the associated environmental costs.

Farming

Tobacco farming is a major source of deforestation worldwide, especially in Africa. Up to 5% of deforestation in developing countries is due to deforestation caused by tobacco growing and curing, a process that often uses wood to dry tobacco leaf. In the US, while most tobacco farms operating today are larger operations, owned by white Americans, the majority of the US leaf harvesters are actually undocumented immigrants, raising environmental justice questions.[1] Green leaf sickness, a type of nicotine poisoning, strikes many fieldworkers picking tobacco leaves, cutting their lives short.

Commercial tobacco farming occurs in over 120 of the world’s circa 200 countries. In 2012, 4.3 million hectares of land were dedicated to tobacco farming. Tobacco as a crop is incredibly nutrient-intensive, and quickly depletes the soil without polyculture and crop rotation—a rare luxury in the global petrochemical-dominated agriculture. It has been calculated that 11.4 million tons of solid wood are required annually for tobacco curing alone. In Malawi, tobacco curing is the main cause of deforestation; and in Brazil, tobacco (along with soybeans and wheat) are the leading causes of vegetation loss. While In some circumstances, in the last decade their have been efforts by some of the major transnational tobacco companies to reduce their carbon footprint, so-called green supply chains often amount to little more than a cynical version of corporate social responsibility (CSR).

Manufacturing

It’s not until you navigate Stanford University’s Citadels tobacco industry facilities map that comprehending the true scale of the tobacco industry’s carbon footprint on this planet starts to come into focus. Over 560 facilities pock the earth, each with their own supply chains, water, energy, and chemical usage.

If price is any indicator of environmental harm, forty-three cents of every dollar spent on cigarettes in the US goes to manufacturing, while only 7 cents are for non- tobacco materials and four cents for the tobacco leaf itself. While China—the world’s largest tobacco manufacturer with 44% of global tobacco production—does not release yearly sustainability reports like British American Tobacco (BAT), Philip Morris International (PMI), or Japan Tobacco Incorporated (JTI), the three largest transnational tobacco companies, Fortune magazine China reported that the China National Tobacco Corporation (CNTC) did note that its 2011 industrial manufacturing emissions of sulfur dioxide alone was 5688 tons. CNTC 2014 energy use was over 13,000 Gigawatt hours per year. Extrapolating this number to the other 56% of tobacco produced, amounts to over 20,000 Gigawatt hours annually for the energy costs of tobacco, much of which is fueled by coal power. One gigawatt of power requires about a nuclear power plant, or 8 million solar panels.

Extrapolating environmental harms from the Euromonitor 2016 market share of companies that do report, and assuming that companies are accurately reporting on resource uses and emissions, 8,860,000 Tons of CO2 Equivalent per year, based on BAT’s 10.7% global market share and their reported 876,000 CO2E reported emissions in their 2015 annual report. Similarly, based on JTI’s 2012 numbers, extrapolated to the other companies, tobacco’s annual water use estimates to be 116,067,000 cubic meters of water.

Transport

Transporting chemicals to the tobacco farms, wood to dry the leaf, taking the leaf to the manufacturing plants in other countries to be processed, and the materials for the cigarettes all takes an immense amount of energy, mostly in the form of fossil fuel, to move about. Then distributing the packaged tobacco products worldwide takes even more fossil fuel. For example, PMI alone paid $183 million in costs for air freighting cigarettes to Japan in 2011, according to their 2012 CSR Report. Most fuel used for transport is diesel, a known carcinogen. For PMI’s vehicle fleet, they were responsible for a whopping 124,054 metric tonnes of CO2 equivalents, not including air or boat shipping emissions. That’s the equivalent pollution to 60,000 roundtrip flights from New York to London in one year, from ground transport alone.

Waste

Cigarette butts are made of cellulose acetate, a plastic that accumulates nicotine and other toxins from the smoked cigarette and can be harmful or fatal if swallowed by children or animals. Thousands of birds die each year due to eating discarded cigarette butts, and they can harm or potentially kill babies who eat them. Cigarette butts are the most prevalent category of waste worldwide found in clean-ups. Stanford professor Robert Proctor estimates that some 110 billion pounds of packaging waste from ink, cardboard, paper, cellophane, and butts are trashed every year as a result of smoking. And according to one market research group, the global market for tobacco packaging will only increase in the next years.

Electronic Cigarettes: The looming environmental fiasco

As bad as butts are, electronic cigarettes pose long-term an even graver environmental threat. Because they are primarily composed of plastics and electronics, not only are they more energy- and resource-intensive to manufacture, but as disposable computerized plastic products, they leach far more chemicals than the average cigarette butt, which is already known to be toxic. Electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) are perhaps pending biggest environmental tobacco threat facing communities and public health.

While cigarettes still comprise almost 90% of all tobacco sales in the US, other tobacco products also weigh heavily on the environment 13 billion cigars and over 128 million pounds of smokeless tobacco were sold in the US last year. Cigarette butts, , are made of cellulose acetate that in the best case scenario disintegrate and pollute beaches and bodies of animals in around five years; but e-cigarettes are an entirely different robotic beast. While cigarettes could still exist without butts (with no added harm to smokers), e-cigarettes are non-biodegradable in their entirety. The majority of them made to be disposable, the heavy metals, batteries, hard plastic, heating rods, and residual e-liquids (and their plastic refill containers) will not degrade for hundreds to thousands of years. Astonishingly, no research to date has looked at the long-term environmental impacts of e-cigarettes.

Extended Producer Responsibility

A contemporary paradigm of business practices that accounts for the full costs of products in their commodity lifecycle, extended producer responsibility offers the potential to disincentivize the current environmental harms of tobacco production. If manufactures had to pay the true environmental costs of their products and mitigate their contribution to global warming, not only would cigarettes be more expensive—reflecting their real environmental costs—but tobacco would also be revealed for what it is: a product that harms the earth and health.

[1] Benson, Peter. (2011). Tobacco Capitalism: Growers, Migrant Workers, and the Changing Face of a Global Industry. Princeton University Press.