You are probably wondering why anyone would recycle cigarette butts, and least of all admit it. A few other questions probably come to mind as well. If you agree to read on, I will try to answer your questions and perhaps even convince you to recycle cigarettes butts as well.
First of all, I do not smoke nor do I allow anyone to smoke in my house or car. No one in my immediate family or social circle smokes, but I confess I did smoke for eight years more than 30 years ago.
Why recycle cigarette butts
Now let’s get down to the nitty gritty of cigarette butts, which are the item most littered in the United States and around the world. A new report on the hazards of cigarette butts estimates that 4.5 trillion of the 6 trillion cigarettes sold every year around the world end up not in an ashtray but on streets and beaches and in lakes and streams. (In fact, this same report advocates recycling cigarette butts, but more on that later in this article.) If you are thinking, “What’s the big deal?
Cigarettes are made of paper and tobacco so they disintegrate, right?” Not quite. Cigarette filters are made of a type of plastic called cellulose acetate, which are designed to capture some of the many toxic chemicals in cigarettes. While these discarded cellulose acetate filters start to decompose (which can take decades), they release the poisons and carcinogens into the environment. Some of those toxins include arsenic, butane (highly flammable), lead, formaldehyde, toluene (used in paint thinner), benzo[a]pyrene (an extremely potent carcinogen), ammonia, and benzene (found in pesticides).
Cigarette butts also pose a significant hazard to animal life, including fish, birds, and marine animals. Experts have found the remains of cigarette butts in the stomachs of these creatures who ingest them by mistake. Young children also have been known to put cigarette butts into their mouth.
Now let’s look at the new report that appears in the May 2014 issue of Current Environmental Health Reports. Two environmental public policy researchers from San Diego State University, Thomas Novotny and Elli Slaughter, point out the damage to the planet and animals caused by cigarette butts, packages, and matches.
They are calling for what some would call drastic measures: banning cigarette butts, making cigarette manufacturers responsible for cleaning up the debris, and initiating a deposit-return program for used butts. Their latter recommendation sounds like a call to recycle cigarette butts, and one company is already doing it, as I explain below.
How I got interested in cigarette recycling
Nearly two years ago, two factors nurtured by interest in cigarette recycling. One was my participation as a volunteer during a beach cleanup day in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. I was one of dozens of volunteers who was assigned a specific area of beach and asked to pick up, count, and record the number of cigarette butts gathered. Although those butts were not recycled (the results supported the subsequent regulation banning smoking on the boardwalk and parts of the beach), the activity piqued my interest and led me to the second factor.
I discovered a cigarette recycling program offered by TerraCycle, a company that provides dozens of free waste collection programs (called brigades) for items that can be a challenge to recycle. Cigarette butts are one of those brigades. I signed up with the brigade, began collecting cigarette butts picked up along my daily walks, and once I accumulate several thousand, I send them in using a postage-paid label. The collected cigarette butts are processed by the Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company, which recycles them into industrial items such as plastic pallets.
Residual tobacco can be used for tobacco composting. The program is simple and free, and I feel good knowing I am helping to make a difference. This type of project could be good for families, youth groups, and civic organizations and would raise awareness of this significant health and environmental hazard. Would you like to recycle cigarette butts and make a difference in your community?