Menus Subscribe Search

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

September 1 • 1:00 PM

Television and Overeating: What We Watch Matters

New research finds fast-moving programming leads to mindless overeating.



September 1 • 6:00 AM

Why Someone Named Monty Iceman Sold Doogie Howser’s Estate

How unusual names, under certain circumstances, can lead to success.



August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


August 28 • 10:00 AM

The Five Words You Never Want to Hear From Your Doctor

“Sometimes people just get pains.”


August 28 • 8:00 AM

Why I’m Not Sharing My Coke

Andy Warhol, algorithms, and a bunch of popular names printed on soda cans.


August 28 • 6:00 AM

Can Outdoor Art Revitalize Outdoor Advertising?

That art you’ve been seeing at bus stations and billboards—it’s serving a purpose beyond just promoting local museums.


August 28 • 4:00 AM

Linguistic Analysis Reveals Research Fraud

An examination of papers by the discredited Diederik Stapel finds linguistic differences between his legitimate and fraudulent studies.


August 28 • 2:00 AM

Poverty and Geography: The Myth of Racial Segregation

Migration, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality (not to mention class), can be a poverty-buster.


August 27 • 4:00 PM

The ‘Non-Lethal’ Flash-Bang Grenades Used in Ferguson Can Actually Be Quite Lethal

A journalist says he was singed by a flash-bang fired by St. Louis County police trying to disperse a crowd, raising questions about how to use these military-style devices safely and appropriately.


August 27 • 2:00 PM

Do Better Looking People Have Better Personalities Too?

An experiment on users of the dating site OKCupid found that members judge both looks and personality by looks alone.


August 27 • 12:00 PM

Love Can Make You Stronger

A new study links oxytocin, the hormone most commonly associated with social bonding, and the one that your body produces during an orgasm, with muscle regeneration.


August 27 • 11:05 AM

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one

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