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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

A Study in Smoking: Empty Cigarette Boxes as Litter

Custom Empty Cigarette Boxes

Thousands of empty cigarette boxes are thrown away every year. While some are recycled, many others end up in landfills or as litter on city streets. Cities across the globe have taken different approaches to deal with the issue, and some tactics have been more effective than others at getting people to quit littering cigarette boxes in the first place or cleaning up after them when they do. Here’s a look at how cities are approaching this smoking-related problem and what you can do to help keep your city clean from empty cigarette boxes.

The Problem of Cigarette Butt Litter

Just where did your cigarettes come from? Chances are they were cultivated and rolled somewhere far, far away. And after you take a drag or two of your smoke, what do you do with it? Well, for starters you throw it out of your car window… but then what happens? How does that cigarette butt end up underneath my tire? When I saw empty cigarette boxes on the side of a New York City street, I picked it up and saved it. Then I found another empty paper cigarette box a few blocks down. After that I couldn’t help myself—I began to pick them up along my regular walk to work every day. There was one under every single parked car!

Why Do We Care?

In a word, litter. That’s because cigarette filters, along with other types of littered cigarette waste like butts and cartons, are made from cellulose acetate—which doesn’t break down easily. In fact, it can take decades to decompose. If a cigarette butt or filter is discarded on a sidewalk, it could remain there for years before it finally degrades to some extent; if thrown into waterways or storm drains, it might never degrade at all.

Cigarette boxes aren’t much better. They may be made of cardboard, but they also contain plastic coatings that make them waterproof—meaning that even if you toss one out your car window while driving down a highway, it will likely still be intact when you reach your destination. And since many people use these boxes to store things like loose change or their cell phone (or even as makeshift ashtrays), cigarettes don’t always get used up by simply lighting one up.

What Do They Look Like?

A pack of cigarettes consists of twenty cigarettes, which are individually wrapped. Once those empty paper flip-top cigarette boxes have been used and discarded, they look like any other junk that litters our streets and alleyways. A more unkempt appearance can be blamed on a combination of paper pulp and glue added to assist with wrapping. When left on their own, though, these empty cigarette boxes will begin to decompose once exposed to moisture. In time, they can also dissolve due to humidity or water damage. This means that within a single year’s worth of rain (assuming normal rainfall), an empty cardboard cigarette box could completely disappear.

What Makes the Problem Worse?

When cigarette packs are left behind, they not only become an eyesore but can also encourage people to litter. It can seem like a small thing when a single cigarette box is tossed onto a pile of trash or out of a car window. But, thinking about why individuals litter empty cigarette boxes (or any other type of litter), it may help us find ways to prevent more people from doing it in the future. After all, that’s how we can make things better for everyone.

How Many Are There?

When you’re walking through a city, empty cigarette boxes are often difficult to spot because they blend so well into their surroundings. Empty boxes are particularly hard to spot if there is already litter on top of them, so it can be hard to estimate just how many empty cigarette boxes make up a city’s litter problem. Luckily, one inventor has found a way to make that estimate possible—by counting cigarette butts instead. This inventor created an inexpensive cell phone app that makes it easy for anyone with a smartphone or camera-equipped device to snap photos of cigarette butts and record their location.

How Did We Get This Data?

Empty cigarette boxes are a common litter item across most of America’s states and cities, which begs a question. How many empty boxes are out there? To get an idea of how much empty cardboard is being littered, we partnered to run a small experiment. The goal was to find out just how many empty cigarette boxes get thrown away, so we put them in a conspicuous spot, collected them on four different days over three weeks and tallied our findings. The results were staggering. In four weeks (the average amount of time spent filling a box), we received 1509 empty cardboard cigarette boxes from people who chose to throw it on the ground instead of recycling or throwing it away properly.

Limitations and Future Work

It is important to note that empty cigarette boxes are a small portion of litter, but they still contribute. Further work can be done to study other areas and types of litter. Another limitation was that empty cigarette boxes were only studied in downtown Haverford, but there is no reason to believe it would be any different elsewhere. Studies should be done in other cities throughout Pennsylvania and around the United States where smoking bans have been enacted. 


Cigarette smoking is a major health problem and leads to numerous societal issues. People who want to quit or limit their smoking may purchase empty packs of cigarettes, which are readily available online or at tobacco shops. Empty paper cigarette boxes may be used to fill with other small items instead of being thrown away after use. If you’re looking for an inexpensive item that can be customized for a specific event, you may want to try ordering custom cigarette boxes online. Not only are they practical, but they can be reused over and over again if taken care of properly.

Jack henry
Jack henry
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