No butts: The campaign to reduce, recycle cigarette waste

No butts: The campaign to reduce, recycle cigarette waste

They’re everywhere -- so much a part of the landscape that you may have to focus for a moment to even notice them.

Trillions of cigarette butts are flicked and stomped to the ground each year, often by people who would never think of themselves as littering.

Contrary to popular belief, cigarette filters are not biodegradable. They’re made from cellulose acetate, a plastic that absorbs tobacco “tar” and eventually breaks down in the environment, but never loses its toxicity and can poison essential links in the aquatic food chain.

One company believes they can make an impact, however, by shovelling against the ever-growing mountain of butts.

TerraCycle, a worldwide company specializing in upcycling, has launched a program from its Toronto office to collect and recycle so-called cigarette waste in Canada. The program, in partnership with an unnamed tobacco manufacturer, is designed to gather up the debris that comes with cigarette butts -- as well as the foil and plastic from packaging -- and keep it out of landfills.

The collected waste, according to a press release, will be recycled into plastic pallets for industrial use. The company is also offering the public a rewards program where participants receive gift points for every pound of cigarette waste mailed in to TerraCycle.

"As a company committed to recycling waste streams that others deem worthless or unsavory, cigarette waste will help to promote our belief that everything can and should be recycled," said TerraCycle founder Tom Szaky. Szaky is also looking for ways to recycle disposable diapers and used chewing gum.

Photo of cigarette butts in the sand by Daleen Loest via Shutterstock.

The tobacco industry has, for some time, acknowledged the issue of cigarette waste. The Altria Group (NYSE: MO), parent company for Philip Morris USA and the nation's largest tobacco manufacturer, has changed its packaging to minimize the environmental footprint of its cigarette products.

Philip Morris USA also reduced the thickness of the poly wrap used in cigarette packaging in 2010, according to the company's website. Along with significant cost savings, the change that year also reduced nearly two million pounds of cigarette packaging materials, required less oil-based resins to be used by the company’s suppliers and translated to about 42 less truckloads of packaging materials shipped to its facilities.

The company also has a consumer education program. Since 2002, it has worked with Keep America Beautiful to launch the Cigarette Litter Prevention Program (CLPP).

“We communicate to our adult consumers that cigarette butts are litter and that they should disposed of properly,” said Altria spokesperson Ken Garcia. “Education and information are important in driving change in adult consumer behavior when it comes to cigarette butt litter.”

Garcia called TerraCycle’s program “innovative” and an effort that “can complement a multi-faceted approach to educating consumers and encouraging action on the issue.”

But some have doubts. “One concern with recycling butts is that we have shown these to be toxic waste products -- one cigarette butt soaked in a liter of water kills half the fish exposed to this solution,” said Thomas Novotny, a medical doctor and former assistant surgeon general during the Clinton administration who is also the CEO and founder of the Cigarette Butt Pollution Project.

“Thus, the people collecting, transporting, and re-manufacturing the cigarette butt waste are at risk for this exposure," Novotny said. "The toxins are not removed by sterilization, as they are organic and inorganic chemicals not necessarily susceptible to heat degradation. Before using any recycled butt products, consumers should be aware of this toxicity and regulatory agencies should subject these products to safety testing.”

If the tobacco industry was serious about preserving the environment from cigarette butts, said Dr. Novotny, they could simply stop selling cigarettes – a product he described as, “when used as directed...lethal and at the end of its product life an environmental hazard to boot.”