TerraCycle founder Tom Szaky photographs large bales of recycled cigarette butts in a warehouse. AP Photo/Mel Evans

One company wants to recycle the trillions of butts that pollute streets and waterways.

Increasingly, researchers are realizing that cigarettes are as much an environmental problem as they are a health issue. Walk along a beach or around a busy city and you step on a lot of cigarette butts, thrown carelessly to the ground.

By one estimate, up to 6 trillion cigarette butts get flicked onto the ground and into the global environment every year. They’re one of the most common forms of the world’s litter, making up 25 to 50 percent of all trash collected from roads and streets. Some are mistaken as food by animals—and kids—and many end up polluting waterways. According to one test by the nonprofit Cigarette Butt Pollution Project, a butt soaked in a liter of water for 96 hours leaches out enough toxins to kill half of fish exposed to to the water.

Cities and private innovators alike have come up with creative solutions to stop smokers from littering, including public ashtrays that reward you for proper disposal, and bins that turn the process into a game. But at the New Jersey-based recycling company TerraCycle, researchers are using physical science.

The company is known for collecting products that people don’t typically consider recyclable—action figures, Capri Sun pouches, even hair—and figuring out how to turn them into consumer and industrial goods. In 2012, TerraCycle started the Cigarette Waste Brigade program, working with cities and tobacco manufacturers to collect cigarette butts and turn them into plastic. TerraCycle currently has more than 7,700 special collection bins in nine countries, including the U.S., Japan, Brazil, and most recently the U.K. Many cigarette butts are collected from local clean-up efforts along beaches, riverbanks, and parks, says Ernie Simpson, the global vice president of research and development at TerraCycle.

He says they’ve collected a lot, even in a countries like Japan, where local governments have enacted strict zero-waste policies. “Those guys do clean-ups of parks every so often, and the materials are sent to us because there's nobody else who has been recycling cigarette filters,” Simpson tells CityLab.

Once collected, the cigarette butts go through a multi-step process developed by the company to separate the plastic in the butts from the toxins, says Simpson. “We first sterilize the material with gamma, or irradiation sterilization, and then we separate the tobacco and paper from the filaments,” he says. “Basically, we’re looking for the cellulose acetate.” That’s the non-biodegradable plastic that tobacco companies have been adding to their filters since the 1950s to enhance the taste of low quality tobacco.

(TerraCycle)

Any remaining tobacco and paper elements are composted, while the plastic gets reprocessed and blended with other materials to make plastic pellets, plastic lumber, outdoor garbage bins—even ashtrays. It takes about a thousand cigarette butts to produce 100 grams of plastic, which means it’s not particularly profitable. So to keep the program running, TerraCycle has partnered with tobacco manufacturers including Japan Tobacco International and Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company.

But the program has its skeptics, like Elizabeth Smith, a tobacco control researcher who studies tobacco waste and pollution at University of California, San Francisco. She says anti-litter and recycling programs don’t go far enough in addressing the root causes of the problem, but rather, give tobacco companies a “green facade.”

Smith thinks the bigger problem is that industries have yet to take responsibility for deforestation and the damage done by tobacco farms. With anti-litter campaigns, she says, “They can sort of say, 'Oh, here's the environmental problem that's most visible to people who live in cities in the West.'"

Plus, getting smokers to change their behavior isn’t easy. “I’m deeply skeptical of the idea that you are going to get smokers in any significant numbers to retain their cigarette butts to deposit them later in some centralized collection place,” she says. “I mean, we can't even get smokers to use ashtrays.” In a 2010 study of tobacco companies’ own research on smoking behaviors, Smith found that smokers saw cigarette butts as “smelly and dirty” but were unwilling to “hold them for more than a few steps to discard them appropriately.” She added that previous anti-litter campaigns did little to change smokers’ “butt-flicking” behavior.

Simpson says their numbers tell a different story. TerraCycle’s website touts that the program has collected almost 52 million butts in the U.S. alone, and another 54 million in Canada. Across the programs in Europe, Simpson estimates that they’ve collected 30 million. He adds that TerraCycle’s main goal isn’t to change smoking behavior, but to come up with a solution to a specific problem.

“We're not telling [anyone] to smoke or not to smoke,” he says. “If people are going to smoke and throw [the cigarette] on the sidewalk, the litter problem is what we're trying to solve.”

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