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Top 10 Most Littered Plastic Items in the U.S.



The following content is sponsored by Greenbutts

The Top 10 Most Littered Plastic Items in the U.S.

Hailed as a miracle material when it first appeared, plastic has taken us to the moon, revolutionized medicine, and helped make computers and cellphones possible.

But plastic has a darker side. The world generates over 350 million tons of plastic waste every year, and over one-fifth of that is mismanaged. As a result, plastic waste can now be found everywhere on Earth, from the highest peaks to the deepest seas. There is also evidence that plastics at the nano-scale can cross cell walls.

This visualization from Greenbutts is the first in our Single-Use Plastics Series. It takes data from Keeping America Beautiful’s 2020 National Litter Study and asks the question: what is the most littered single-use plastic item in the U.S.?

2020 National Litter Study

A staggering 9.7 billion cigarette filters make them the single-most littered item in the United States. This is nearly one-fifth (19.6%) of all littered items. If you were to place these cigarette filters end-to-end, they would wrap around the Earth five times.

Waste typeNumber of pieces littered
Cigarette filters9,697,652,100
Plastic film (non-food)2,839,486,700
Plastic film (food)2,574,609,700
Expanded polystyrene (non-food)1,356,464,400
Non-film plastic food packaging649,688,000
Beverage packaging587,076,000
Expanded polystyrene (food)583,235,600
Single-serve wine & liquor325,476,500
Plastic bags307,365,600
Water bottles275,372,600

Considering that 240.9 billion cigarettes were sold in the U.S. in 2022, and that more than 80% of cigarette filters are littered, it is possible that this figure is actually conservative and likely only a small fraction of the true number.

These findings are in line with other international studies. Cigarette filters are routinely the number one most-collected items during the Ocean Conservancy’s annual International Coastal Cleanup.

Food and beverage containers of various kinds were also a key source of plastic litter, representing half of the top 10. Interestingly, plastic bags were only number nine, perhaps because of the success of bans at the state and local level.

Cigarette Filters Are Not Biodegradable

There is a common misconception that cigarette filters are biodegradable. Biodegradation is the breakdown of organic matter by microorganisms, and despite their almost cotton-like appearance, cigarette filters are actually made from a kind of plastic called cellulose acetate.

Plastics degrade in the environment, often through exposure from the sun’s UV rays, breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces. But ultimately, plastic gets into the food we eat, and even the air we breathe.

Cigarette filters can take years to degrade, from 18 months to 10 years according to research, causing significant harm to the environment in the process.

Tackling the World’s Number One Plastic Pollution Problem

Greenbutts has developed a certified biodegradable, plant-based alternative to the world’s number one plastic pollution problem, cigarette filters.

This is the first piece in our three-part Single-Use Plastics Series from Greenbutts. Next up is an exploration of the impact of plastic cigarette filters on the marine environment.

>> Learn more about Greenbutts.

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