Chain smoking: Biodiversity and the tobacco industry
Tobacco’s impacts on human health have been the subject of an effective anti-smoking campaign and are widely understood. However, the environmental effects of tobacco production have been less well studied. Impacts on nature mean impacts on all of us, not just the smoker; therefore, dealing with the ramifications of the tobacco industry on the natural environment is a key corporate responsibility activity. There are many actions that tobacco businesses can take to build a nature-positive future.
A simplified tobacco value chain and the primary impacts on biodiversity at each stage (image source: Nature Positive)
Tobacco plants are often farmed in monoculture plantations to maximise yields. This has significant negative impacts on biodiversity, as it removes natural habitats and limits opportunities for native plants and animals to thrive alongside the crops. The use of water in water-stressed areas may impact local wildlife, and the use of pesticides and fertilisers may harm the wildlife, resulting in declining soil health, which is bad news for future crops and the environment.
This tobacco monoculture plantation in Cuba will have a low amount of genetic and species biodiversity (image source: Robin Canfield on Unsplash)
However, tobacco farming doesn’t have to be like that. Companies can adopt regenerative farming approaches that protect and enhance soil health. Limiting the most dangerous pesticides, such as neonicotinoids, should be avoided altogether. Most importantly, companies can commit to no land conversion from natural/semi-natural habitats and even aim for a net gain in natural habitat cover on farms.
Although the impacts of farming tobacco on biodiversity are relatively well understood, a 2006 Imperial Tobacco report found that manufacturing processes can have a larger, often hidden, consequence.
Before tobacco plants can be processed into products, the leaves have to be cured. This traditionally uses wood fires, which can be a significant driver of deforestation leading to habitat loss and fragmentation. Deforestation can also be driven by the sourcing of other materials, including rolling papers and filters.
Tobacco leaves have been hung up and cured by wood fires (image source: Ben Ashby on Unsplash)
However, this doesn’t have to be the case. Tobacco companies can adopt and implement targets of zero-deforestation for fuelwood in their curing processes. This can be achieved by sourcing wood in a sustainable way and providing it to farmers, so they do not cut down trees. Alternative curing processes can reduce the demand for wood, thus reducing deforestation.
Creating tobacco products requires chemicals that can be toxic to species to treat the tobacco leaf. These chemicals can also contaminate ecosystems. Waste wood pulp and polluted water can lead to contamination that reduces biodiversity and diminishes the ability of ecosystems to recover from increasing pressures and degradation.
Tobacco companies can reduce the amount of chemicals used, can reduce or eliminate waste and can enforce more stringent disposal methods that prevent wastewater and chemicals from entering ecosystems, rather than capturing and treating them.
The tobacco industry is global, with numerous logistical centres and networks that facilitate shipping the products around the world. Transportation is predominantly by ship, and this relies on fossil fuels. Transport, alongside the direct emissions of the processing plants themselves, impacts biodiversity through its contribution to climate change and pollution risks.
The shipping industry is a source of greenhouses gases (image source: william william on Unsplash)
Tobacco companies can reduce emissions by seeking out shipping providers who are transitioning to less-polluting fuels (such as very low sulphur fuel oil) and who equip their ships with scrubbers to remove harmful pollutants. When constructing and running processing centres, investing in energy efficiency, effective waste management and circular economy initiatives can all reduce the harm to biodiversity.
Tobacco products continue to have detrimental impacts on biodiversity when they are consumed. Tobacco smoke contributes to air pollution and produces a residue that can be toxic to people and other organisms, thus threatening biodiversity.
The post-consumer waste of tobacco products also affects biodiversity as cigarette butts and plastic packaging are often not recyclable or biodegradable. This waste directly harms wildlife through plastic and later microplastic pollution and can also lead to contamination from chemicals that may leach into aquatic ecosystems. Research is ongoing about the impact of plastic pollution on small mammals such as mice and hedgehogs and it has been shown that even small quantities of microplastics can have adverse impacts on marine worms and snails.
Downstream biodiversity impacts of the tobacco industry include those caused by the disposal of cigarette butts and vape packaging (image source: Brian Yurasits on Unsplash)
To address this, tobacco companies can integrate biodegradability into their product and packaging design, such as by using paper packaging made from wood pulp. They can also ensure that packaging materials hold Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or other certifications so that they do not contribute to deforestation.
The tobacco industry is shifting away from traditional tobacco products and towards vaping, which is often presented as a more environmentally friendly alternative to traditional smoking. However, vaping products still use nicotine extracted from tobacco plants, and require additional solvents. Although they do not produce smoke, vaping still releases potentially harmful chemicals into the air that can have adverse effects on biodiversity. Vaping products have also significantly increased the amount of plastic pollution caused by the tobacco industry. Products are often hard to recycle and rarely come with any disposal information, thereby increasing their chances of being poorly disposed of.
The tobacco industry can reduce the impact of plastic waste by educating consumers on correct disposal methods and taking responsibility for creating alternative waste-disposal systems. There is also a growth in the development of synthetic nicotine, which could reduce the demand for tobacco plants.
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