By Tom Szaky, CEO and founder of TerraCycle
Cigarette butts are the most littered item in the world. A common sight on sidewalks, roadways and beaches, approximately 4.5 trillion cigarette butts are improperly disposed of, tossed out windows, snuffed out on the ground or dropped into gutters each year. In fact, 77% of respondents in a Keep America Beautiful survey don’t view cigarette waste as a form of litter, and many smokers consider dropping butts into gutters or storm drains as safe ways to extinguish a cigarette.
One reason for this may be the assumption that that cigarettes will decompose naturally in the environment. It’s just paper, plants and cotton, right? Wrong. Contrary to popular belief, cigarette butts are far from biodegradable, as the filters are made of cellulose acetate, the same plastic used to make sunglasses and the buttons on your shirt. This plastic can take up to 10 years to break down, all the while leaching toxic elements into our waterways and posing serious harm to fish, birds and other wildlife that often mistaken cigarette butts for food.
When cigarette butts are “properly” disposed of, collected from ashtrays or receptacles and thrown in the trash, they go to landfills or to be incinerated, neither of which are environmentally ideal. In the case of landfilling, cigarette butts can still find their way into the environment and release chemicals, and burning plastic through incineration is a recipe for greenhouse gases and air toxicity. And, like most of today’s most common waste streams, cigarette butts are currently unrecyclable through public programs.
But it’s not all bad news. Through the free Cigarette Waste Recycling Program, cigarette butts can be safely disposed of, and fully recycled to a second life. Managed by international recycling company TerraCycle, the program is completely free to participate in and is available to any individual, organization, business or city within Canada – over the legal smoking age of 19, of course.
The cigarette butts recycled through the program are collected in a number of ways. Ashtrays and butt buckets used at home and in public areas are one, as are litter and trash clean ups hosted by non-profits and NGOs. TerraCycle also works directly with cities and municipalities to install receptacles that consumers can use to keep butts off the sidewalk and in the new supply chain. Then, participants can download a pre-paid shipping label to send the cigarette butts to TerraCycle, where they are aggregated, stored and prepared for processing.
How does TerraCycle recycle cigarette butts? Cigarette butts are comprised of three material components: tobacco, paper and a plastic filter. The first step includes sterilizing the cigarette butts, followed by shredding and separating them by material composition. The residual tobacco and paper are separated out and composted, while the filter is thoroughly cleaned, melted and pelletized using a method called extrusion. The cellulose acetate pellets are then used for manufacturing new plastic products, such as industrial shipping pallets, ashtrays and park benches.
TerraCycle Canada is the first region in the company’s history to launch the Cigarette Waste Recycling Program, and has collected over 98 million cigarette butts (more than 34 weighted tons!) since 2012. To put that into perspective, the weight of cigarette butts diverted from our streets, landfills and oceans is approximately the weight of 25 beluga whales!
This milestone would not be possible without partners such as A Greener Future, Canada’s premier environmental non-profit focused on litter cleanup and prevention. This year marks their 4th annual Butt Blitz, the single-day nationwide event calling upon civilians to remove as much cigarette butt litter as possible from the environment across Canada. In partnership with TerraCycle Canada, all cigarette butts collected during the 4th annual Butt Blitz will be safely recycled.
Sign up today as a volunteer for this year’s Butt Blitz! For more information about TerraCycle’s Cigarette Waste Recycling Program, please visit https://www.terracycle.ca/en-CA/brigades/cigarette-waste-brigade.