BY: Jack M. Environmental advocacy group Ocean Conservancy lists discarded cigarette butts as the number one piece of trash found on our roads, beaches, parks, and in oceans and lakes. And a report by National Geographic suggests that New York State alone produces 1.5 million tons of cigarette butts annually; that same report identifies cigarette butts as making up as much as 13% of all litter produced in the state of Texas. Americans smoke, on average, about 1,000 cigarettes per person per year, and other counties like China, Russia and Spain have the unenviable distinction of consuming as much as double that of the U.S. According to a World Health Organization report, over five trillion cigarettes are smoked annually worldwide, and the number is expected to more than double in the next 20 years.
Americans smoke, on average, about 1,000 cigarettes per person per year, and other counties like China, Russia and Spain have the unenviable distinction of consuming as much as double that of the U.S.
The real environmental culprit is the filter. The main ingredient in the manufacture of cigarette filters is a product called cellulose acetate, a type of slow-biodegrading toxic plastic. And with five trillion discarded cigarette butts finding their way into the environment every year, the impact can be nothing short of catastrophic. There are, however, a few bright lights on the horizon. Born in Hungary and raised in Canada, Tom Szaky left Princeton University in 2001 to set up his company TerraCycle, which focuses on recycling consumer trash. A couple of years ago, the company decided to tackle the growing numbers of discarded cigarette butts, and the method the company uses to collect the butts is just as innovative as their resolve to fix this problem. TerraCycle has also partnered with volunteer schools, restaurants and individuals in more than 20 countries around the world to set up depots and recycling boxes for collecting the cigarette butts. Here’s a story of one restaurant owner who’s doing his bit for the environment. Once enough butts have been collected, they’re shipped off to TerraCycle’s processing plants, where the filters are separated from any ash and unused tobacco. The cellulose acetate is then extracted from the filters and converted into useable plastic pellets, which in turn are used to make picnic tables, backpacks, flower pots, garden chairs and even— irony of ironies—plastic ashtrays, which can be purchased online at TerraCycle or at places like Walmart and DwellSmart. To put this process into some perspective, it takes about 200,000 cigarette filters to make one plastic garden chair. As a bonus and incentive, the organizations and individuals who act as collection agencies are awarded points that can be converted into real money. The money is donated to various charities and non-profit organizations.
If you have the choice of tossing your butt onto the sidewalk or into an available recycling box, do the right thing. You’ll be building a better future.
Photo: Danielle Richardet