Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Can Cigarette Butts Be Recycled?

• June 30, 2011 • 4:00 AM

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.

July-August 2011 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.

[youtube]gt0AvQQQFNU[/youtube]

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.”

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Matt Skenazy
Matt Skenazy, an assistant editor at 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.

More From Matt Skenazy

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 26 • 4:00 PM

Turmoil at JPMorgan

Examiners are reportedly blocked from doing their job as “London Whale” trades blow up.


November 26 • 2:00 PM

Rich Kids Are More Likely to Be Working for Dad

Nepotism is alive and well, especially for the well-off.


November 26 • 12:00 PM

How Do You Make a Living, Taxidermist?

Taxidermist Katie Innamorato talks to Noah Davis about learning her craft, seeing it become trendy, and the going-rate for a “Moss Fox.”


November 26 • 10:28 AM

Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals’ actions pile up quickly.


November 26 • 10:13 AM

Honeybees Touring America


November 26 • 10:00 AM

Understanding Money

In How to Speak Money, John Lanchester explains how the monied people talk about their mountains of cash.


November 26 • 8:00 AM

The Exponential Benefits of Eating Less

Eating less food—whole food and junk food, meat and plants, organic and conventional, GMO and non-GMO—would do a lot more than just better our personal health.


November 26 • 6:00 AM

The Incorruptible Bodies of Saints

Their figures were helped along by embalming, but, somehow, everyone forgot that part.


November 26 • 4:00 AM

The Geography of Real Estate Markets Is Shifting Under Our Feet

Policies aimed at unleashing supply in order to make housing more affordable are relying on outdated models.



November 25 • 4:00 PM

Is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Doing Enough to Monitor Wall Street?

Bank President William Dudley says supervision is stronger than ever, but Democratic senators are unconvinced: “You need to fix it, Mr. Dudley, or we need to get someone who will.”


November 25 • 3:30 PM

Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.


November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


Follow us


Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals' actions pile up quickly.

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.