How one company is making cigarette butt recycling not only possible, but popular

Cigarette butts are the worst—they dot sidewalks, clog gutters, and soil oceans. Now a New Jersey-based company has found a way to recycle these unwelcome discards, and the program has gone global.

Known as the Cigarette Waste Brigade, TerraCycle’s effort to make recycling cigarettes easier for smokers is a first-of-its-kind program according to Albe Zakes, VP of communications at the company, who told Fusion that “before TerraCycle cigarettes weren’t recyclable.”

Since kicking off in New Orleans, the Cigarette Waste Brigade can now be found in cities nationwide, as well as internationally in Australia, the U.K., France, and Brazil. To date in the United States, TerraCycle has set up over 7,000 cigarette recycling bins and more than 38 million butts having been collected. Promoted as a company that “makes the non-recyclable, recyclable,” TerraCycle was founded by Tom Szaky in the early 2000s after he dropped out of Princeton University.

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Smoking is a global phenomenon that’s not going away anytime soon, no matter how pervasive the bans in the United States become. Since the turn of the century, global cigarette volume sales have increased by about 8%.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) around 4.5 trillion of the six trillion cigarettes smoked every year end up in the environment, i.e. as litter. NIH estimates that in 2011 alone there were about 110 million pounds of discarded waste from U.S. cigarette consumption—a significant chunk of which ends up accounting for more than a third of the nation’s roadside litter.

But the problem is far more than just an eyesore.

“Cigarettes contain toxins that, when littered, leak into the surrounding environment,” said Zakes. “It only takes a single cigarette butt to contaminate a liter of water. Animals can also mistake littered butts for food.”

It only takes a single cigarette butt to contaminate a liter of water.

So what makes recycling cigarettes so challenging?

Rick Zultner, product development director for TerraCycle, recently told WPVI-TV in New Jersey that many cigarette filters are made of cellulose acetate, a high-grade plastic that’s also used in sunglasses.

Cigarette filters that are ready to be recycled.

Cigarette filters that are ready to be recycled.

When TerraCycle gets a bundle of used cigarettes, the filters are first sterilized and then shredded, according to Zakes. The remaining tobacco is then composted and the shredded filter is blended with other recycled materials and turned into usable, industrial plastic products like shipping pallets.

"Plastic lumber" from recycled cigarette butts and other recyclable materials.Courtesy of TerraCycle

Plastic lumber.

The Cigarette Waste Brigade program is being promoted by sponsors, seemingly those interested in “greening” their image. This is necessary because in the current recycling economy, recycling the cigarette butts costs more than the resulting recycled material can be sold for.

Zakes said that thanks to Santa Fe Natural Tobacco “recycling butts is free for both the smoker and the collecting city or organization” in the U.S.

The program recently launched in the U.K. as a partnership between TerraCycle and Japan Tobacco International (JTI), a major international tobacco manufacturer.

Szaky said of the U.K. initiative that it could “drastically reduce the amount of cigarette waste that is littered” while also providing a better means of dealing with of cigarettes found in ash trays.

We haven’t found anything that we can’t recycle.

According to the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management journal, TerraCycle, which launched in the U.K. in 2009, already has recycling programs set up there for: biscuit wrappers, writing instruments, instant coffee packaging, baby food pouches, plastic air fresheners, air freshener refills, trigger heads and flip top caps from home cleaning products and flexible cleaning wipes packs, mobile phones, laptops and tablets.

That’s quite the laundry list of recyclables, and according to Zakes, it’s likely to keep growing.

“We haven’t found anything that we can’t recycle,” he said. “But with the amount and variety of packaging and litter in the world, we are always looking for new waste streams to address.”

 

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