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One Good Thing about Cigarette Butts

Cigarette butts recycling

It’s common knowledge that smoking cigarettes is the leading cause of lung cancer, that secondhand smoke is a health hazard, and that cigarette use is linked to dozens of other diseases and illnesses. But there is at least one good thing about cigarette butts: they can be recycled into useful products.

We are up to our butts in butts

Approximately 43.8 million Americans age 18 and older smoke cigarettes, and although that number has declined slightly in the past few years, the figure is still discouraging. All of those cigarettes not only have a tremendous impact on human health, they are also a major cause of pollution.

Don’t cigarette butts disintegrate? Although any cigarette paper and tobacco that are tossed away break down, the butts themselves are not biodegradable, and they stick around for a long time. That’s because 95 percent of cigarette filters are made of cellulose acetate, a type of plastic, made into super thin fibers to create a filter.

On top of that, a study conducted by Keep America Beautiful reported that 65 percent of all cigarette butts are not disposed of properly, which explains why you see so many butts in the environment. One estimate places the number of cigarette butts disposed of at 2 billion pounds per year.

In fact, the 2009 National Visible Litter Survey and Litter Cost Study for Keep America Beautiful found that 37.7 percent of the litter on highways (based on number of pieces per mile) was tobacco products. Tobacco products were followed by paper (21.9%), plastic (19.3%), metal (5.8%), and glass (4.5%).

Cigarette butts are tossed out by smokers from car windows or dropped as they walk down the street, on trails, on beaches, and other public places. These butts accumulate alongside curbs, outside buildings, and in parking lots where they are blown or transported through storm drains to streams and rivers and can eventually pollute the water supply.

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What you can do with cigarette butts
Maybe you smoke or maybe you don’t; perhaps you know someone who does. Naturally, quitting would be the best thing any smoker can do, but one of the next best things is to recycle your butts.

Yes, cigarette butts can be useful and can be recycled, according to Tom Szaky, CEO and founder of TerraCycle, Inc., a company that has developed solutions for difficult-to-recycle items, including cigarette butts. TerraCycle has teamed up with Santa Fe Natural Tobacco, which sponsors the Cigarette Waste Brigade®.

According to Santa Fe Natural Tobacco’s head of sales and marketing, Cressida Lozano, “We’re proud to be the exclusive sponsor of an innovative program to reduce and recycle cigarette butt litter, regardless of which manufacturer made the cigarettes.”

In a New York Times article from April 2012, Szaky explained that the ash, paper, and tobacco are separated from the filters and the organic materials are composted. The remaining cellulose acetate is sanitized and molded via injection into plastics that are used to make plastic pallets and beams.

Albe Zakes, VP of Media Relations for TerraCycle, said in a phone interview that efforts to recycle cigarette butts extend beyond US shores. TerraCycle currently also partners with Imperial Tobacco in Canada and soon will have a program in Europe a well.

Individuals and groups who are interested in helping clean up the environment of unhealthy cigarette butts and getting them recycled can sign up for TerraCycle’s Cigarette Waste Brigade (or check out other waste brigades). It costs nothing to sign up and nothing to ship the butts, and you could help make a difference in the health of the planet.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
New York Times
Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company
TerraCycle Inc.
2009 National Visible Litter Survey and Litter Cost Study for Keep America Beautiful

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