Can Cigarette Butts Be Recycled?
A San Diego innovator pays $3 a pound for cigarette butts. But whatever can you recycle them into?
Nearly 2 billion pounds of trash is thrown on the ground every year in the form of cigarette butts — 4.5 trillion cigarette butts, composed largely of filters made from cellulose acetate, a non-biodegradable plastic. But what if all these cigarette butts had a value? What if you could trade them in for cash? Would they then disappear from streets, beaches and parks?
Curtis Baffico, a San Diego stock trader who moonlights as an environmentalist, asked himself these questions and decided to create a recycling system to try to answer them. Baffico raises money on his website, Ripplelife.org, then pays out a “Butt Redemption Value” of $3/pound for whatever cigarette ends people collect and turn in at monthly collection events.
It takes roughly 1,500 cigarette butts to add up to a pound, Baffico says, and he admits that $3 isn’t a lot of compensation for the effort required to pick them up. Still, at the first event, held in January in San Diego's Pacific Beach, Baffico and other volunteers collected 11,250 cigarette butts. A second event netted 26,000.
Baffico isn’t the first person to attempt to put a value on cigarette butts. In the last few years, legislators in Maine and New York have considered bills that would require some form of butt deposit or return fee. In 2009, San Francisco officials took a slightly different approach by approving a 20 cent fee on every pack of cigarettes, thus charging smokers for the $7.5 million it costs the city annually to clean butts from the streets.
But Baffico is wary of deposit laws and thinks “smokers might feel justified to litter if they already paid the deposit.” Others are of a similar mind. In a 2009 paper in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, Tom Novotny, a professor at San Diego State University who specializes in the environmental impact of tobacco use, noted that, “adding a waste tax to cigarettes is a possibility; however, since methods to recycle cigarette butts may be problematic, exactly what this fee would pay for is yet to be determined.”
And that has been the consistent problem: Cigarette butts can’t be repurposed into more cigarette butts, the way glass bottles can become more bottles. In part that’s because cigarette butts are toxic. As cigarettes are smoked, filters trap all sorts of toxic chemicals — nicotine, arsenic, cadmium, vinyl chloride, acetone, mercury and lead — that can leach into surroundings.
So collecting butts is only a first step.
Just the same, Baffico hopes to repurpose every butt he collects, insuring that it never sees a landfill. One of his recycling ideas: Grind up the butts and add them to concrete, replacing fibermesh, an anti-cracking agent that is often added to concrete and usually made from polypropylene. The thought is that the concrete would surround the butts — for instance, in a slab foundation — and keep their toxins from leaching into the environment.
Baffico isn’t a lone cigarette-butt innovator. In a 2010 study published in the journal Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research, Chinese researcher Jun Zhao and his colleagues showed that extracts from cigarette butts soaked in water can be used as a rust control compound for a type of steel widely used in the oil industry. A 2009 study found that cigarette butts might be used in the manufacturing of bricks.
Zhao received substantial press for his study. Environmental groups have lauded Baffico for his Butt Redemption Value program and repurposing goals. But Novotny says that if society is to repurpose cigarette butts, the recycling system has to include tobacco companies. “If there was an effort to get the tobacco industry to take back the filters, like the electronics industry takes back electronic waste,” he says, “then it would behoove the industry to find something to do with those filters other than throw them into a landfill.”
Actually, though, responsibility for cigarette butts is exactly what the tobacco industry doesn’t want. Novotny and Elizabeth Smith, an adjunct professor at the University of California, San Francisco, noted in a study published this year in the Journal of Tobacco Control that “the tobacco industry has feared being held responsible for cigarette litter for more than 20 years.”
One solution to the used-cigarette problem would be an outright ban on filters. “The cigarette filter is a marketing tool, not a health device,” Novotny says. “There really is no health benefit from filters at all.” In the absence of governmental action against filters, Novotny conducts more research, and Baffico collects more butts. “This is plastic,” Baffico says. “There needs to be a way to convert this into a reusable material.”
Matt Skenazy, an assistant editor at em>Outside magazine, is a former Pacific Standard fellow. His articles have appeared in Sierra, Men’s Journal, the Surfer’s Journal, and Climbing, among others publications. A 2012 editorial fellow at Pacific Standard, he began working with magazines in 2009, when he served as associate editor of Surfing. He holds a BA in literature from the University of California, Santa Cruz.