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Americans Smoke 139,000 Cigarettes Every 15 Seconds (And They're All in This Painting)

Chris Jordan warns against the environmental consequences of throwing away more than a trillion cigarette butts annually.

Chris Jordan

Artist Chris Jordan wanted to show the environmental damage of the half-million cigarettes Americans smoke every minute. So he gathered hundreds of discarded butts from Austin and his native Seattle, then photographed and digitally multiplied them to create this stanky-looking montage: 139,000 tobacco-stained butts, a depressing monument to a mere 15 seconds of U.S. smoking history.

"Toxic Forest" displays a natural landscape with a most unnatural medium: Cigarette filters, the number one type of litter found dirtying America's beaches, parks, and urban areas. The project was commissioned by the healthcare non-profit Legacy, which is trying to cut down on smoking's corrosive effects on humanity and the ecosystem.

"The dangers from smoking don’t stop once a cigarette is stubbed out," writes Legacy. "Cigarette butts leach toxic chemicals and carcinogens that pollute the environment. They’re poisonous to wildlife and can contaminate water sources."

They're also remarkably resilient. The filter of a cancer-stick is made of cellulose acetate, a synthetic fiber that biodegrades easily only under "severe" biological conditions, Legacy says. More often the world's annual trash load of 4.5 trillion butts breaks up into smaller and smaller bits that infiltrate the soil and seas, adding to the artificial plastic soup swirling in the Great Pacific garbage patch and the Great Lakes.

The phlegm-tinged forest is on display this week at SXSW Eco, a conference on sustainability and the environment in Austin, Texas. Regarding how he made the fascinating, hack-worthy image, Jordan emails that he "collected a few hundred littered cigarette butts, photographed each one in high resolution, and then assembled those photographs into the huge digital image. This also allows me to keep accurate track of the number of butts the image depicts, so the statistic is depicted within a percent or two of accuracy (a few get trimmed off the edges during the mounting/framing process)."

"Toxic" is part of a larger series the artist is doing called "Running the Numbers," which he explains thus:

Running the Numbers looks at contemporary American culture through the austere lens of statistics. Each image portrays a specific quantity of something: fifteen million sheets of office paper (five minutes of paper use); 106,000 aluminum cans (thirty seconds of can consumption) and so on. My hope is that images representing these quantities might have a different effect than the raw numbers alone, such as we find daily in articles and books. Statistics can feel abstract and anesthetizing, making it difficult to connect with and make meaning of 3.6 million SUV sales in one year, for example, or 2.3 million Americans in prison, or 32,000 breast augmentation surgeries in the U.S. every month.

From afar, it's tough to tell that the butt-based artwork has anything to do with smoking. Get a few feet away though, and legions of nasty filters jump into focus. Here's part of a tree trunk:

Images by Chris Jordan and Legacy via SXSW Eco

About the Author

  • John Metcalfe
    John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.