Despite the strong efforts of people on the frontline cleaning our beaches, New Zealand's cigarettes are now the largest source of plastic waste in our ocean, with health and environmental advocates challenging communities to reflect on New Zealand’s “tidy kiwi” brand.

The term "ocean pollution" often brings to mind images of straws, bottles, and other plastic trash. Cigarette filters, however, are arguably a far more detrimental form of waste and haven't been given the attention they merit — until now. In Tāmaki Makaurau alone, litter cleanups cost almost $5 million a year. Cigarette butts make up 27% of plastic litter found almost everywhere and much of what we see in public places ends up on our beaches.

“There’s more cigarette butts in the ocean than plastic straws. If you don’t wanna stop smoking for you, your whānau, do it for our moana”

Sustainable Coastlines founder, Camden Howitt, believes their large-scale coastal clean-up events have contributed to an increase in public awareness on moana waste. However, he believes that New Zealanders hold a dangerous myth that cigarettes are “natural” and “biodegradable” which contributes to the issue: “There’s not a beach cleanup where I don’t see cigarette butts or packets, and the majority come from storm water drains from littering around public places”.

Sustainability Coastlines' core mission centres on empowering communities to care for the ocean and have embraced the proverb “I am the ocean, the ocean is me”, recognising the interconnectedness between our health and the health of our water. 

“I am the ocean, the ocean is me”

Māori advocates elaborate on the notion of environmental responsibility, proposing that a new model of cigarette waste management must centralise our relationship with our moana. Ngāti Porou environmental advocate, Tina Ngata or “the non- plastic Māori”, believes that from a Māori perspective, moana pollution is “part of a larger story of colonisation, urban migration and the loss of ancestral knowledge around care and communication with nature.” Fulfilling kaitiakitanga duties must start with understanding the connection between our health and the health of our moana.

 “Cigarette pollution is much broader and complex than physical harm. Kaitiaki starts with atua- they are the ‘real OG’ in guardianship, but Tangaroa and Ranginui also live within each of us. We are 70% water and breathe to survive, so we need to recognise that water outside of you exists inside of you and has a direct relationship to your own wellbeing.”

Intrinsic in understanding one’s identity as tāngata whenua, is knowing that we are descendants of atua Māori, of our natural world and beyond. Recognising this identity and whakapapa is important to inform practices of kaitiakitanga that is to embody the essence of kaitiaki, the spiritual minders of the environment, in a way that is relational and illustrates reciprocity with the whenua and taiao. 

“Māori ways of seeing and doing have huge potential to make change because in essence, it is about relationships and connections to ourselves and our world. This is a perspective we all must take on, particularly the tobacco industry, because their level of contribution to solutions must be relative to the harm they are causing. We wouldn’t be having this conversation if there wasn’t a tobacco industry presence in Aotearoa.”

Ngata believes solutions to resolving moana pollution must start with relationships. “The tobacco industry have the money, power and resources- it is up to them to come up with the solutions. I want to see their R&D, but I believe it must start by them acknowledging the relationship their actions have on the moana.”

Tāmaki Makaurau iwi, Ngāti Whātua, are experiencing first-hand the consequences of moana pollution. Last month, its popular beach, Okahu Bay was stamped with a new "very high risk of illness" water safety warning from Auckland Council. These warnings are prompting iwi advocates to demand that resources and responsibility to be returned communities to repair damages. 

Tom Irvine, General Manager of Transformation for Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei Whai Maia Limited, explains that they have a “para kore” (zero waste) sustainability strategy and have not put in waste bins around Okahu bay because of dumping. He states “we completely back initiatives to promote smokefree beaches. Our whānau are at the beach every morning cleaning up rubbish that reaches our shores. Enough is enough”.


Hāpai te Hauora Tobacco Control General Manager, Mihi Blair, believes communities will be shocked to learn that the majority of pollution in our moana is cigarette butts: “The fact of the matter is that much of the cigarette butts that ends up in oceans aren’t dropped on beaches- they’re there due to poor waste management and lack of public education. But this could be helped if we didn’t smoke around beaches, dispose of litter responsibly and if there were better regulations at a council level which encouraged this”.

Few councils have taken steps towards phasing out smoking in public beaches. According to a map of councils' Smokefree outdoor policies and spaces, only six of the 64 regional areas have smokekfree beach or water way regulations.  These six areas include western Bay of Plenty, Gisborne, and Hutt City. Auckland council is also one of the four areas to have developed policy to see smoking on public beaches disallowed, although many feel firmer action is required as non-regulatory approaches like theirs are voluntary and not enforced.

Camden Howitt from Sustainability Coastlines urges communities to embrace the Smokefree 2025 goal New Zealand has because of the impact it will have on our health, and the health of our oceans: “If you don’t wanna stop smoking for you, your whānau, do it for our moana”.