Tobacco is damaging the environment in many ways: Chemicals in seedbeds and on the fields, deforestation due to curing of the green tobacco leaves and, finally, poisonous cigarette butts made of plastic.
Similar to other monocultures, a large number of chemicals is used in tobacco cultivation to fight pests, fungal infections and weeds. Some of them are fatal to humans in such tiny amounts like 0.01 gram. They are carcinogenic, damage the genetic material and contaminate air, water and soil. They can even be retrieved in rainwater. Three examples illustrate the dangers for all people in tobacco growing areas.
Chloropicrin is often used for soil disinfection. The chemical is very toxic to the respiratory system and can lead to death by asphyxiation. In the First World War, it was used as a poison gas. In the EU, the toxin has been banned since 2011.
The pesticide 1,3-dichloropropene is very toxic to the skin, the eyes, as well as to the respiratory and the reproductive system. The substance leaches easily into the ground water and has been banned in the EU since 2008.
The herbicide glyphosate is probably carcinogenic in humans according to the WHO cancer authority. It can lead to miscarriages and malformations in newborns and is blamed to cause the widespread mass death of bees. In the EU, a ban has been controversially discussed for years now.
Pesticides and other agricultural chemicals such as fertilizers are washed into nearby watercourses and enter the ground water, sometimes even the seas. The mostly irreversible consequences must be borne by all people in tobacco growing areas, because their access to safe drinking water is seriously endangered.
Curing leads to deforestation
Globally, 200,000 hectares of natural forests are destroyed every year for the popular American-Blend cigarettes. The main ingredient of this tobacco mixture is Virginia tobacco, a variety cured by using firewood. Since the tobacco farmers usually don’t own any wood plantations, they have to get firewood from the forests.
Virginia tobacco is dried in the so called flue-curing process. For a period of one week the green leaves hang in sheds over hot tubes. To constantly maintain the appropriate temperature in the sheds, the pipes are heated around the clock by wood fires.
Tobacco also needs lots of nutrients, so the soils are leached after two to three years. Consequently, forests are being cut down to open up new fields, for example in Tanzania.
The largest environmental destruction occurs in the Miombo forest in South-East Africa. In countries like Malawi, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, the animals disappear with the forest. There is less rain in the region, and the soil is not protected against erosion. All people in the region, not just tobacco-growing families, are losing their livelihoods.
Deforestation is also significant for global climate change: Previously, the natural forests stored CO2. Now this carbon storage is missing and, additionally, CO2 is released into the atmosphere due to the wood fires for curing.
Toxic plastic waste
The environment is also harmed by the waste of tobacco products. On the one hand, there is a large quantity of cellophane waste, on the other hand – and this is the bigger problem – there are the cigarette butts copnsisting in the filters and residue tobacco.
Cigarette filters are made of cellulose acetate, a synthetic material. They are not biodegradable, but decompose only slowly into smaller pieces until they are tiny microplastic. Therefore, this is plastic waste. Worldwide three quarters of smoked cigarettes are littered – that is 4.5 trillion butts.
Cigarette butts also contain many toxic and carcinogenic substances, such as arsenic, lead and, of course, nicotine. These substances enter the rivers, the ground water and the seas together with the butts. Sea animals often confuse butts with food and poison themselves. Thus microplastic and poisons enter the food chain.
A laboratory study showed that the leaching of a single cigarette in one liter of water is fatal for half of the sea- and freshwater fish.
Every year, at least 200,000 hectares of forests are cut down to grow and cure tobacco.